ATLANTA – A state lawmaker who has championed mandatory playtime for Georgia’s elementary schools says he will keep pushing for the cause after Gov. Brian Kemp struck down the measure.
This year marked Rep. Demetrius Douglas’ third attempt to convince his colleagues that requiring recess for the state’s youngest students is a key strategy for curbing childhood obesity.
The Stockbridge Democrat’s full-court press paid off, with both chambers and members of both parties overwhelmingly backing the measure earlier this year.
“This is part of a child’s education. Recess is nearly as important as academics,” said Jeff Mullis, the bill’s other sponsor; Mullis is a Republican from Chickamauga who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee.
“Now, in rural Georgia, we recess greatly,” Mullis said. “Sometimes here in the metro areas, they fail to do that properly.”
But Kemp has blown the whistle on the proposed mandate, saying it would undermine the authority of local school boards and “impose unreasonable burdens on educational leaders without meaningful justification.”
“While I support expanded recess opportunities for Georgia’s students, I am a firm believer in local control, especially in education,” Kemp wrote in his veto message.
Douglas, who played football at the University of Georgia, said he was “appalled” by Kemp’s decision.
When making his case, Douglas often cites Georgia’s ignoble distinction of being No. 8 for childhood obesity, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That report found that more than 18 percent of Georgia’s children – ages 10 to 7 – are considered obese.
“With this veto, we took a step back,” he said.
Douglas said the issue is important enough for lawmakers not to leave it up to locals to decide whether to provide recess. He said he plans to meet with Kemp to figure out a path forward.
“If everybody keeps sounding the alarm, sooner or later pressure breaks pipes,” Douglas said. “I’m a firm believer if you’re doing what’s right, right will always stand no matter what.”
At least five other states, including Missouri and Florida, have passed such recess laws. Proponents argue that unstructured playtime improves the health and cognitive ability of young students.
Douglas said he has heard of systems in Georgia that have moved away from recess, which he attributed to the increased emphasis on testing.
But Rep. Rick Jasperse, who chairs the House Education Committee, said that if recess is fading in schools, he is not convinced that state intervention is the answer.
Jasperse, a Republican from Jasper, said the measure was scaled back in his committee so it would be optional, a move that he said would encourage districts to provide recess without adding another state requirement.
“Schools have got to have that freedom to schedule,” he said, adding he would prefer to focus on relieving districts of impediments that might be preventing them from offering recess.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's newspapers and websites.