Originally Published: November 19, 2017 6:01 a.m.
PHOENIX — The way Sen. Warren Petersen sees it, elementary school children are being rushed through lunch and recess by schools that are fearful of losing state aid.
So the Gilbert Republican is proposing to give them more time. He has crafted legislation to say that schools can count the time students spend at lunch and at recess toward the minimum required by Arizona law to be considered full-time students for purposes of state aid.
Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard appreciates where Petersen is coming from. However, “high stakes testing is what truncates recess and lunch more than anything.”
Howard said the real issue is meeting mandates. “I hear teachers saying more than anything they need more time with students, not less.
“Flexibility is always good ... (and) overall, we do have a really good handle on our minutes. But, basically, there’s more to do than time we have.”
State law requires students in grades 1 through 3 to have at least 712 hours of instruction a year to be counted when the Department of Education divides up aid. That’s four hours a day over the normal 180-day school year.
For those in grades 4 through 6, the minimum is 810 hours, or 4.5 hours each day.
The problem, Petersen said, is that the time a student spends eating lunch, or even in recess, does not count. “It motivates schools to shrink lunch and recess,” Petersen told Capitol Media Services. He prefers a different test to determine a full-time student.
“If you’re in school first class and last class, that’s sufficient,” he said.
Petersen acknowledged the measure appears to run counter to efforts to ensure that students get more “seat” time in classrooms, in front of teachers. But he said that presumes things like lunch and time away from class are frivolous and unnecessary.
“They need the break,” he said. “They need the activity.”
He acknowledged that his legislation, SB 1008, could theoretically lead to abuses. And Petersen said it’s not his intent to encourage schools to have two-hour lunches and four-hour recesses knowing that it won’t trigger a reduction in state funds.
But he said it’s wrong to consider education being only what occurs in class and not what occurs elsewhere, including on the playground.
Dan Streeter, superintendent for Humboldt Unified School District said: “I think the required minutes in the day is a challenge, (and) I like including them as instructional; a bill like this could allow much more flexibility for us.”
Streeter said he has not read the bill, but looks forward to seeing what the next legislative session brings. Lawmakers begin their work in earnest in January.
There is precedent for what Petersen wants to do. Last year the Legislature approved a measure that did something similar for high schools. It spells out that any hours a student is scheduled to be in school count toward whether that person is considered a full-time student.
That law also redefines time in class for “instructional purposes” to include not only core subjects and electives but also lunch, study halls, music instruction “and other classes that advance the academic instruction of pupils.”
Courier Senior Editor Tim Wiederaenders contributed to this article.