WASHINGTON — 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 Washington state, the Franklin Pierce school district in the Tacoma suburb of Parkland discovered that it could save a quarter-million dollars by reassigning its seven physical education teachers to different positions.
And in New York, a city audit found that only 6 percent of the city's schools came anywhere near to offering the required two hours of physical education, or 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 that giving money to the 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 state, which bought a new curriculum and new equipment with a $1.2 million grant, and the Kennewick, Wash., 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. And no federal law requires PE to be offered. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell vetoed a bill that would have required the state's public schools to teach PE in elementary and middle schools, calling the measure an unfunded mandate.
Forty-eight states have their own standards for physical education, but only two-thirds of them require local districts to comply with them, 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 that nearly two-thirds of all high school students are not getting enough exercise, with more than a third of them watching television for 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 per week of PE for elementary-age children and 225 minutes for middle and high school students. Alabama is the only state that's complying with the recommendations.
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 physical education per week in kindergarten through eighth grade. But the state does not require daily recess and does not issue a report card for each school.
The state mandates 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 that all physical education classes should be delivered by certified and licensed PE teachers.
That's not always the case.
In Bellingham, Wash., parents sued the school board during the past school year 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.
The Franklin Pierce school district cut its budget by $350,000 when it ordered its certified PE staff to teach other classes, eliminating seven PE positions.
The district signed a $100,000 contract with the local YMCA to offer classes to students. The district says that the YMCA personnel "coach," not "teach," and that they provide "structured physical activity," not physical education. The school board approved the plan when it faced a $4.8 million budget shortfall last year.
Willie Painter, the district's spokesman, said the transition has been functioning well but is not ideal.
"We would love to have the money to fund our PE specialists and the many other positions which have been lost over the past five years," he said. "But we are also faced with living in the new normal."
After the October audit in New York, City Comptroller John Liu said that the city's Department of Education "is failing gym." His audit of 31 elementary schools found none complying with a requirement that they offer at least 120 minutes a week of physical education 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're progressing in comparison to national standards. And it would pay for research to examine the link between children's health and their 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.
A group of 250 retired generals and admirals has joined the cause, as well, arguing that about a quarter of all young Americans weigh too much to join the military.
The group, a non-profit organization called Mission: Readiness, is worried that too many schools have eliminated physical education and aren't serving enough healthy lunches. It wants Congress to reconsider its November decision to allow school cafeterias to continue serving pizza and French fries, when lawmakers rejected a plan by the Obama administration that would have limited servings of starchy vegetables and tomato paste.
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