March 7, 2019, Atlanta -- Ellie Royal, 13, delivers papers as a page in the Georgia House of Representatives, Thursday. She was at the Gold Dome when representatives approved a bill mandating recess. Unfortunately for her, it only affects kindergarten through fifth grade, and she's in seventh. She still likes the idea, though.
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Georgia House: let’s give kids a break, every day

It’s too early to break out the celebratory juice boxes, but any Georgia school kid who was watching their live feed from their state House of Representatives Thursday afternoon had a reason to jump from their seat.

Legislation that mandates recess in elementary schools passed the chamber by an overwhelming 160-11. It now moves to the Senate, which has proved a formidable obstacle in prior years.

Rep. Demetrius Douglas, D-Stockbridge, a former Bulldogs football player who went pro, has been trying since 2017 to get this language into the law: schools shall schedule recess for a recommended 30 minutes per day. Douglas, who now coaches football on the side, has argued that obesity is a growing threat and that students need more exercise.

The Senate undid his previous efforts by slipping in wording that made his  mandate optional for school districts operating under so-called “flexibility” contracts with the state. Since all but two of the 180 school districts have one, the mandate rendered his bill meaningless.

That’s why, last year, the House put the mandate back in after the Senate marked it up. The Senate refused to reconsider, and the bill died as the session ended.

This year, though, Douglas has a new play in his book: a powerful friend in the Senate.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, introduced the same bill in the Senate. Like the Senate’s previous efforts on recess, Mullis’ mandate could be waived by nearly all districts, until last week, when he amended it. Mullis made the soft mandate a hard one, and Douglas, who’d started with what the Senate had left him last year, inserted the hard mandate into his, too.

Douglas’ apparent ability to get what he wanted all along boils down to a simple but essential ingredient in politics, a useful lesson for any young student: “relationships,” Douglas said. “You have to reach across party lines.”

Last year, he asked Mullis, whom he described as “excellent” (he repeated the word twice), to carry his bill through the Senate.

The relationship grew from there.

As chairman of the Rules Committee through which all bills must pass, Mullis is a powerful ally in the Senate. When asked why he was willing to put himself out for a recess bill from the other chamber, by a lawmaker from the other party, Mullis pointed to his belly and indicated that he could use some exercise himself.

“I believe in the issue,” he said, but then he added what was likely the main reason: “I like him.”

Mullis said cross-chamber and inter-party “camaraderie” is very important. “My passion is to help him,” he said.

If recess is an issue that can bring together Republicans and Democrats, Senators and Representatives -- and keep them together long enough to get House Bill 83 out of the Senate intact this year, then students such as Ellie Royal will have a reason to celebrate.

“I do believe that it should have passed,” said Ellie, 13, who was taking a break from seventh grade to volunteer as a House page Thursday. “In elementary school, I remember how it felt to be cooped up and wanting to go outside,” she said.

During hearings over the years, experts and children have testified that students need a break. Besides the benefits to their health, the young need to refresh their minds to be ready to learn, the experts said.

On the flip side, were school districts worried about pressure from the state to move their students along academically and ensure their performance on tests. There is so much to learn, and every minute counts, they said. No time for recess.

Ellie, who’s father is a member of the state school board, said the experts are right. Kids in fifth grade got “rowdy” without breaks, she said. “We were more talkative in class, more bubbly.”

She wishes she could have recess now that she’s in middle school, but bipartisan camaraderie only goes so far: the legislation only requires recess through fifth grade.

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