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Georgia HB 83: The Politics of Recess

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MANY THINK that recess for children K-5 would be a fairly benign and bipartisan issue. Unfortunately for our kids, it has become way too political.

There is an abundance of scientific research that unequivocally proves that daily recess is essential for children.  Unfortunately, with an overabundance of state standardized testing requirements, recess has become the tragic victim of a pressure cooker-like environment where school districts across the state are choosing to scrap recess for additional time in the classroom—leaving many young children sitting at their desks for entire days with no breaks, except for a 30-minute silent lunch.  

Any reasonable person can easily see how this is asinine and counterproductive.

State Representative Demetrius Douglas has been fighting this battle for three years, trying to pass legislation that would encourage school districts to schedule 30 minutes of recess per school day.  

As a former linebacker for the Georgia Bulldogs, not to mention his NFL career with the New York Jets and the Washington Redskins, Representative Douglas knows a thing or two about the essential need for recess.  

That is why he has sponsored the “recess bill” for three years in a row. Unfortunately his attempts did not pass during the 2017 and 2018 sessions, but HB 83, “Quality Basic Education Act; recess for students in kindergarten and grades one through five” passed during the 2019 Georgia legislative session with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

In the House, the vote was 160 yea and 11 nay; in the Senate, 48 yea and 4 nay.

Unfortunately, Governor Kemp vetoed the bill.  When asked about his veto of the recess bill, Kemp replied, “I don’t support mandating recess.  If you want recess, lobby your local (school) boards.”

The veto caught Rep. Douglas by surprise.

“I have worked on this bipartisan legislation for three years.  It passed both chambers overwhelmingly,” said Douglas.

“During the legislative process there was no indication that the Governor’s office did not support the legislation.  We worked very hard during the committee process, in the House and the Senate, with both Democrats and Republicans, and with the Georgia Department of Education to ensure success.”

In Chatham County, constituents have been lobbying their School Board for more than four years, and while a policy finally passed in December, it is still not perfect.  

According to Carey Schwartzburt, mother of three, “During the fall testing of this past school year, my son’s PreK class, 22 students, at Heard Elementary weren’t permitted to go outside for recess because of the risk of them making noise in the hallways and disturbing the test-takers.  I assume this was also the case with Heard’s other PreK class of 22 students. And yes, this was during the entire time of testing.”

Schwartzburt says she believes they also had to eat lunch in their classrooms on these testing days and not the cafeteria.

“It was roughly two weeks straight that they did not have any outdoor time. After the recess policy passed this past winter, they did go out for recess during the next set of testing days, but once the Superintendent changed the mandated verbiage of the policy, it was, once again, hit or miss that his class would have outdoor time,” she says.

Toward the end of this school year, she says, “It was approximately two days a week that they wouldn’t have recess. The excuse usually was they were worried it might rain, which, on those days that I heard that excuse from my son, it did not rain during their 9:30 am allotted recess time. And the gym was not available to them at that time as an alternative—so they just had in-classroom center time.”

Paula Kreissler, director of Healthy Savannah, said, “We are very disappointed that the Governor vetoed the recess bill.  The research is clear: behavior and academic performance improve with kids who have recess.”

Michael Johnson, District 7 School Board Representative, said, “Governor Kemp’s veto of the Recess Bill is a travesty. His reasoning behind the veto is that he wants more local control over education. Well Governor, I’m calling BS! If you really wanted more local control over education you would repeal the 5 millage hold back on public education funds immediately.  You would repeal State mandated testing immediately. You would repeal state maximum class sizes immediately, along with a host of other issues!”

If Governor Kemp wants to be intellectually honest, Johnson said, “He would repeal everything that affects Local Boards of Education and let us run our districts as we deem without the overreaching hand from Atlanta.”

The veto of the wildly popular recess bill leaves many people to wonder: who was in the Governor’s ear?  With an overwhelming majority support from both Republicans and Democrats, who was encouraging the Governor to veto such an immensely popular bill?  

Many fingers have been pointing toward the Georgia School Board Association (GSBA).

Former Savannah-Chatham School Board President Jolene Byrne explains:

“Over the past few years, GSBA has spent thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting a bill that would protect the basic human rights of children.  Yes, the State did pass a law in 2004 requiring districts to have a policy regarding ‘unstructured breaks.’ However, this law allows districts to eliminate recess, if they so choose,” Byrne says.

“GSBA hates the term ‘recess’ so much that when I was Board President they went so far as to notify the district that we were prohibited by State law from having a recess policy. That is the position of GSBA, one they are willing to fight tooth and nail to maintain,” she says.

How many tax dollars are being spent by Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools to pay the Georgia School Board Association?  $25,775. There are 180 locally elected boards across the state of Georgia, and while membership is voluntary, all 180 are members. Dues are based on student population size and paid by taxpayers.

Justin Pauly, Director of Communications, Georgia School Boards Association said, “Local boards of education are already required by state statute to have a policy on unstructured breaks.  This code section 20-2-323 was passed in 2004. It allows for these decisions to be made at the school level. Therefore HB 83 falls under our position of supporting local control.”

“Most of the School Board Members I have spoken to from all corners of Georgia were hoping this would become law,” said Michael Johnson.  “It can be problematic interpreting board policy to make into a regulation to be enforced at a school level. There are also districts that don’t even have a recess policy because GSBA recommended not having recess language in policy.  So for anyone to say School Boards don’t want this doesn’t understand the background of recess, school boards, and GSBA.”

The state legislature can override the Governor’s veto. But, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite in the majority held Republican caucus to do so.  

At the Republican State Convention held on Hutchinson Island, Majority Whip, Senator Steve Gooch, said that while he voted for the recess bill, “a veto override would embarrass the Governor in his first year,” and therefore he would not support it.  

Representative Ed Setzler, who was a cosponsor of the recess bill, said there was, “zero chance of a veto override.”

Representative Ron Stephens (R-164) said he expects a new bill early in the next session.  

“It’s one of those things that should be a statewide mandate,” said Stephens. “We need to put something that local school boards want—like putting sugar in medicine that tastes pretty bad, so that the local school boards won’t go against the bill.  We can take away some mandates on testing, and bring it along with recess requirements.”

Locally, all members of the Chatham Delegation voted for the recess bill, with Representative Carl Gilliard (D-162) being a strong cosponsor.

Representative Jesse Petrea (R-166) said, “I understand the Governor’s rationale for his veto, standing on local control—school boards lobbied against it.  It doesn’t rise to the level to try to fight the Governor over a veto.”

Petrea hopes that the bill will send a message and raise awareness of the issue - “perhaps you will see change anyway.”

Senator Ben Watson (R-1) would give no comment about overriding the veto, but said, “It is best not to have a power struggle between the legislature and the Governor.  I feel that recess is important - but we don’t want to draw a line in the sand.”

Senator Lester Jackson (D-2), said, “I think we are going to look at the bill next session and we should vote to override the Governor’s veto,” noting that with over 72% of lawmakers voting in favor of the recess bill, the required two-thirds vote would be there to support an override.  “It’s the right thing to do, we need to promote healthy attitudes for our young people that will shape and mold their lives.”

Rep. Douglas concludes, “Our state is a national embarrassment as it relates to childhood obesity. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Georgia ranks 8th in childhood obesity. Our kids are our future and they deserve better!”

As a former college and NFL linebacker, Douglas spent his career avoiding being blocked, but now he is trying to avoid a block from fellow Bulldog, Governor Brian Kemp. There are no signs of Douglas giving up on this issue.    

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