Mandatory recess considered by Arizona lawmakers

First grade students at Coyote Springs Elementary School in Prescott Valley hit the playground for their morning recess Wednesday, February 1. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier)

Photo by Les Stukenberg.

First grade students at Coyote Springs Elementary School in Prescott Valley hit the playground for their morning recess Wednesday, February 1. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier)

Educational leaders in the region are wary about the state House Education Committee’s nod this week to a bill that would mandate all district and charter schools offer 50-minute recess periods from kindergarten through fifth grade.

It’s not because they don’t want kids to play outdoors. The objection is to state lawmakers usurping local educational authority. Several voiced fear that this will compete with instructional time and add staff costs to already stretched budgets. It could even mean longer school days that would seriously impact local families.

“What happened to local control over decisions on how we educate our kids?” Prescott Unified District Superintendent Joe Howard said.

The bill, approved by a unanimous vote on Monday, was proposed by Democratic Gila Bend State Rep. Jesus Rubalcava, a former special education teacher. The bill specifies that this time be unstructured, with children selecting their own activities.

Even with that vote, though, some committee members voiced concerns about the practicality and impact on local districts.

New Prescott Republican State Rep. David Stringer said he doesn’t support mandates, and questioned those who suggested that recess will enhance student academic performance.

Committee proponents said research indicates that play enhances the educational experience and leads to better academic outcomes.

“If the research on this is so strong in favor of the benefits of recess, then why wouldn’t charter schools and why wouldn’t individual districts and individual school governing boards recognize that and implement it?” he asked.

Admitting he has yet to review the full proposal, Howard said his frustration is that area school districts are being left out of the conversation that is not as simple as whether or not kids have more play time. He said he doubts lawmakers intend to add extra dollars to accommodate extra staff, or relent on other mandated requirements that fill each school day.

“I’d love to know where this derived from, and whether educators had any part in it,” Howard said. “I like for kids to have time to play, and be free and exercise. Those are huge values to us in PUSD. But we already have a ton of mandates, and it’s making it harder … to do the job we have to do.

“I would be concerned about the effect on our budgets, and on our already stretched days when we are trying to fit in lots and lots of learning. I don’t want to come across that recess is not important. But we have a lot to do.”

In general, PUSD elementary schools offer 50 minutes of recess/lunch time for kindergarteners, with 35 combined minutes for first through fourth. At the intermediate school, students have 35 minutes before school begins, 20 minutes at lunch and a five to 10-minute break during the rest of the day.

A new mandate would require a reshuffling of instructional time, and would require additional staff, Howard said.

Humboldt District Superintendent Dan Streeter shared similar sentiments.

Like his neighboring district colleague, Streeter said he objects to state lawmakers interfering on what should be a local educational decision.

Though he suspects his district would likely meet the requirement with its current schedule, Streeter said he is cautious about any “unfunded mandates.”

“Theoretically, this sounds good,” Streeter said. “But really it is a decision that should be handled at the local level. We have parents’ groups, and an elected school board who are able to make the best decisions for our local community.”

Yavapai County Schools Superintendent Tim Carter said he can see the argument on all sides, but as a local-control advocate finds that this mandate goes against that philosophy.

As vice-president of the state Board of Education, Carter said he listened to all the committee testimony and can appreciate the concern about the need for children to have physical exercise in their school day.

“But I’m a staunch local-control person,” Carter said, noting his wariness of the Legislature mandating educational practice on districts and charter schools.

He, too, is also not certain this is the “hot button” debate that lawmakers need to focus on in the coming session.

This bill would need to be approved by the full House, Senate and signed by the governor before it would become law.

“Conceptually, I like the idea, but I think it really is best left to local control,” Carter said.

Capitol Media Services reporter Howard Fischer contributed to this story.