Congress may set national PE standards to fight child obesity

With public schools cutting back on spending for physical education, some members of Congress want to intervene, worried that the nation’s schools are churning out too many fat kids.

The cutbacks are happening across the country.

In Bellingham, children in kindergarten through second grade get 40 minutes of structured PE time a week; older elementary kids get double that. Both are below the state requirement of 100 minutes a week for those ages; the school district says it compensates with health teaching and other unstructured activities.

In New York, a city audit found that only 6 percent of the city’s schools came anywhere near the required two hours of PE for elementary-age children each week.

“It’s obviously a clear problem,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “Childhood obesity is spiking, and actually our overall health is to some degree declining.”

When Congress considers overhauling its federal education law early this year, Smith and a bipartisan group of 84 other House members want to include language that would pressure schools to offer more PE. Their idea is to force school officials to issue yearly reports on how much time students engage in physical activity, making it easier for the public to compare schools.

“Most schools offer physical education and health, but now we want to keep track of that,” Smith said. He said schools would be offered “a broad encouragement to say, ‘Hey, we ought to be paying attention to physical health.'”

It’s all part of a plan to try to fight an alarming increase in childhood obesity. Recent studies have shown that 17 percent of the nation’s 6- to 19-year-olds are obese, and that more than a third are overweight. Those rates have about doubled in the past three decades.

The plan will face opposition from many Republicans, who argue that curriculum decisions should be left to the states and local school boards.

When the House Education and the Workforce Committee last year suggested changes to the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, Republicans proposed scrapping 43 school programs, including the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, which gives PE grants to local school districts. Many Republicans on the panel said giving money to schools to promote PE was an inappropriate role for the federal government.

But the program survived, and in December Congress signed off on $78.8 million in grants for 2012. The grants have helped schools across the country beef up their physical education offerings, including the Sumner School District in Washington, which bought a new curriculum and new equipment with a $1.2 million grant, and the Kennewick district, which updated its curriculum with a $750,000 grant.

School officials expect the fight over funding to intensify this year on Capitol Hill, with education facing automatic cuts of $3.5 billion in 2013 – roughly 8 percent of the overall budget – after Congress’ so-called supercommittee failed to deliver a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan in November.

Currently, only five states – Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont – require physical education every year from kindergarten through 12th grade. No federal law requires PE to be offered.

Forty-eight states have their own standards for physical education, but only two-thirds of them require local districts to comply, according to a 2010 report by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, known as NASPE.

The report, called “Shape of the Nation,” said nearly two-thirds of all high school students are not getting enough exercise, with more than a third watching TV at least three hours a day.

NASPE, along with many health organizations, recommends that students exercise for at least an hour every day. And the group suggests that schools provide at least 150 minutes of PE a week for elementary-age children and 225 minutes for middle and high school students. Alabama is the only state complying with the recommendation.

U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., is sponsoring a bill that would put NAPSE’s recommendations into law. If Congress doesn’t act, he said, obesity-related costs could hit $1 trillion a year by 2030 and could “literally bankrupt our nation”

In Washington state, schools are required to offer 100 minutes of PE per week in first through eighth grade, but the state does not require daily recess and doesn’t issue a report card for each school. The state does mandate two health and fitness credits to graduate from high school, but schools are free to exempt students from participating in physical education.

And schools have little to worry about when it comes to state oversight.

“We do not track who is in compliance or who provides waivers,” said Lisa Rakoz, the state’s program supervisor for health and fitness education.

As another part of its recommendations, NAPSE said all physical education classes should be delivered by certified and licensed PE teachers. That’s not always the case.

In Bellingham, parents sued the school board in 2010 for not offering enough PE with certified specialists. Tanya Rowe, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district resolved the dispute without going to court by adding a specialist for children in kindergarten through second grade.

Despite the settlement, the structured PE time for those and other elementary students is below the state-required 100 minutes a week. Rowe said that’s made up with health teaching, field trips, before- and after-school activities and other choices that vary by school.

“It’s not the perfect model, but it’s what we have with the limited resources,” she said.

In Ferndale, the amount of time set aside for PE instruction has held steady in the face of recent budget cuts, said Cynthia Sicilia, Ferndale School District’s director of curriculum and instruction.

The existing health curriculum at Ferndale addresses the risk factors for obesity, including how “family culture and environmental factors affect physical health,” Sicilia said.

Overweight middle school students are given additional, high-impact PE activities, and the district recently revised its nutrition policy to eliminate classroom snacks and to reduce the amount of fat and sugar in school meals, Sicilia said.

“In that regard, we’re looking at childhood obesity as a huge issue,” she said.

After the October audit in New York, City Comptroller John Liu said the city’s Department of Education “is failing gym.” His audit of 31 elementary schools found none were complying with a requirement that they offer at least 120 minutes a week of PE for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Members of Congress are offering many different plans in an attempt to get kids exercising more.

The FIT Kids Act co-sponsored by Smith – short for the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids Act – would measure schools on how they are progressing in comparison to national standards. And it would pay for research to examine the link between children’s health and academic achievement. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, is sponsoring a bill that would give grants to schools to help them build or repair athletic facilities.

And Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has introduced the PHIT Act, short for the Personal Health Investment Today Act, which would allow for the deduction or pre-tax use of $2,000 a year for families to pay for expenses related to sports, fitness and other physical activities.

Bellingham Herald reported this story at

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