'Yes' to daily school recess, Senate says. The House is another matter.

Fifth grade students at John M. Sexton Elementary School, St. Petersburg, participate in field games during a 15 minute recess, each school day. The students also have Physical Education class three times a week at the school. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Fifth grade students at John M. Sexton Elementary School, St. Petersburg, participate in field games during a 15 minute recess, each school day. The students also have Physical Education class three times a week at the school. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published April 4, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Nearly 1.3 million elementary school students in Florida are a major step closer to being guaranteed 20 minutes of recess every school day after the state Senate unanimously endorsed the concept Tuesday.

The easy win for SB 78 — sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — comes one year after chamber leaders wouldn't even consider the idea.

Now that it's the House holding up the daily requirement with attempts to scale it back, Flores said she hoped the Senate's vote would "send a strong message" to the House that senators "feel strongly that if we're going to have recess, it should be actual recess."

Requiring daily recess in elementary schools is overwhelmingly favored by parents who have lobbied aggressively for the change in Florida law. It's also supported by a majority of state lawmakers.

But the effort still faces a potential repeat of 2016 — when the proposal stalled over a single lawmaker's opposition.

Last session, the recess legislation passed the House two votes shy of a unanimous result, but there was a blockade in the Senate. Although several senators wanted to vote on the measure, then-Pre-K-12 education chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, wouldn't hear the bill in committee because he personally didn't think the state should impose another mandate on school districts.

Now, it's the Senate that overwhelmingly favors the proposal — and at least almost half the House still does, too — but one powerful House member could stand in the way.

Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, the current House education policy chairman, opposes the legislative mandate, as Legg did. Bileca — one of the two "no" votes last year — has said repeatedly he wants school districts to decide for themselves to change their recess policies.

Parents argue a statewide mandate is necessary, because they say most district school boards haven't listened to their pleas. They want daily recess so their 5- to 11-year-olds can get a break during the school day.

"This bill is here as a result of moms from across the state having to listen to their children come home — their 7-year-old son come home — and say, 'Mom, I'm so tired. I hate going to school; I hate going to school because there's nothing for me to look forward to.' " Flores said. "This was a real grassroots effort of moms from across the state, saying: 'Can you please help? Can you please be the voice in Tallahassee that I can't be?' "

Daily recess — separate from P.E. — is recommended by national health and physical education experts, who have found it improves concentration, reduces disruptive behavior and teaches children social skills.

Last week, members of a House education subcommittee were poised to consider a recess bill identical to the Senate's but they immediately watered it down. Their revised bill would ditch any daily mandate, would allow schools to blend P.E. with recess time, and would cut off guaranteed recess from more than 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida.

Flores criticized the House changes. "[Recess] should be unstructured free-play and it should not be in competition with other things that are important," she said. "Recess should be able to stand on its own. [It] should be able to give our students and our teachers … a mental break at some point during the day."

Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia, the sponsor of the House recess bill (HB 67), said last week the House's scaled-back version was necessary to "make sure we have a bill that we know will travel successfully through the House." (Bileca's committee is the last of three slated to hear the House recess bill.)

Bileca won't say whether he intervened to force the changes, telling the Times/Herald: "I think I've made the thoughts that I've had on recess clear, so how they chose to change it is how they chose to change it to move things through."

The Senate's approval for daily recess earned swift praise from passionate "recess moms" across the state — including many in Miami-Dade, Tampa Bay and Central Florida — who have fought for more than a year to get lawmakers' support.

"We are so happy that the Senate sent such a strong, clear message to the House on this very important issue," Angela Browning, a parent from Orlando who has rallied "recess moms" statewide, said on Facebook.

The parents want House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, to now take up the Senate's bill on the House floor rather than proceed with the House's scaled-back version, which still has two more committee stops.

Corcoran won't commit to that, telling the Times/Herald Tuesday the House bill "is working its way through the process, and we'll see what happens."

"I've said it from Day 1 until Day 60, these institutions shouldn't be top-down; these institutions should be an egalitarian place where everyone has an equal voice — and we'll keep doing that," Corcoran said.

He rejected that one lawmaker might be dictating the direction of this year's recess bill. "It's got to be voted on out of committee; anyone can offer amendments, so it's not one person," Corcoran said.

In contrast to the House's now-diluted measure, Flores' bill — which was unchanged as it unanimously cleared three Senate committees since late February — would require district school boards to "provide at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each week for students in kindergarten through grade 5." It's similar to the mandate the House supported last session.

"If this truly is a collaborative process, then we trust he [Corcoran] will help to give representatives the chance to vote for the language they support on the floor," Browning told the Times/Herald.

Corcoran last year joined Bileca in opposing the recess bill. But Corcoran supported this year's original measure, he reiterated Tuesday, because a provision was removed that would've barred teachers from withholding recess as a punishment. (Bileca had opposed that provision, too.)

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark