TALLAHASSEE — Florida parents seeking more recess time for their children suffered a setback Tuesday, when state lawmakers significantly watered down a proposal that was supposed to require 20 minutes of daily recess for all public elementary students.
Members of a House subcommittee were willing to give students more recess time during the school week — but not nearly to the extent that parents have sought for more than a year and that many lawmakers previously supported.
The original bill — which remains intact in the Senate — called for "at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe and unstructured free-play recess each week," 20 minutes per day, for the nearly 1.3 million Florida children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
But under the House's amended bill, recess would be legally required at most two days a week, and a third of all elementary students — 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders statewide — won't have any guarantees of recess.
The changes to HB 67 by the Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee drew immediate criticism from "recess moms" and opposition from health and wellness experts because it clashes with research-based recommendations that endorse daily recess, separate from physical education classes.
Although 56 House members — or roughly half of the 120-member chamber — had signed on to co-sponsor the original version, bill sponsor and Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia said Tuesday the revisions were necessary to ensure the bill would be considered in committee.
"We're making sure we have a bill that we know will travel successfully through the House," he told reporters. "There are certain points during this process where in order to get bills heard and moving through committee, we need to make sure that the bill is put into a position where it can get from committee to committee."
The Innovation Subcommittee members offered no discussion or debate before unanimously endorsing the changes.
Tuesday was do-or-die for the House bill, as it was the last meeting of the Innovation Subcommittee. The recess bill was the last bill the panel considered for the 2017 session; without that hearing, the bill would have died. (Because of those stakes, "recess moms" — though opposing the changes — said they are glad their efforts haven't stalled.)
The amended bill removes the language requiring 20 minutes of recess each day, and instead:
• Lets schools count recess time toward physical education requirements for students in kindergarten through third grade.
• Requires district school boards to provide recess only "on days when physical education classes are not held" for grades K-3.
That means the bill now only requires recess two days a week but gives districts the option to have it more often if they choose — such as through replacing traditional physical education with recess. State law mandates schools provide 150 minutes of P.E. each week, which schools typically spread out across three days of the week.
Plasencia would not say who asked for the changes.
Last year, the House endorsed daily recess by a near-unanimous vote, with only two opponents: current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and current Education Committee chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, who has remained wary of supporting the daily mandate.
School district administrators have privately complained that requiring daily recess would be too burdensome, because it'd be something extra to fit in an already packed school day. "This bill gives them the flexibility to have recess and physical education on a daily basis," Plasencia said.
Passionate "recess moms" say the new bill isn't what they've asked for. They're now banking on the Senate passing its bill and the House taking up that version on the floor.
"We know we have the votes to pass it," said Angela Browning, a parent from Orlando who has organized "recess moms" statewide. "We will not support leaving behind elementary schoolchildren when research shows it's harmful to do so. Secondly, the research is very clear: recess is recess and P.E. is P.E. — and our kids need both."
Browning also said Corcoran "gave us his word over the summer that he would support 20 minutes of daily recess at all elementary grade levels, separate and apart from P.E. — and we trust him."
Bileca could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and Corcoran's spokesman Fred Piccolo did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether Corcoran was involved in the changes to the recess bill and whether he supported them.
The House bill has two more committee stops before it could reach the floor. Meanwhile, the Senate's recess bill — SB 78, sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — will be discussed on the Senate floor on Thursday, with a final vote next week.
When asked about the House's changes and whether the Senate would support them, Flores said in a text message: "(It) doesn't sound like it would comply with what our constituents are asking for."
Health and physical education experts also oppose the new language, because they advise against using recess time as a replacement for physical education classes. Recess and P.E. serve different functions and offer distinct, separate benefits for children, they say.
Recess is intended to be relaxed playtime where students aren't restricted in what they choose to do for physical activity, whereas "physical education has standards and benchmarks" to teach students motor skills, concepts and strategy, Fely Curva, a lobbyist for the Society of Health and Physical Educators, told lawmakers.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark