Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Virginia's Expanded PE Requirement--Good Policy?

Virginia's General Assembly has passed a bill that would mandate 150 minutes per week of physical education in the Commonwealth's public elementary schools. As the bill awaits Governor McDonnell's signature, school districts around the state are belatedly mobilizing to oppose it.

Is this bill a good idea?

The law was proposed by a pair of physician legislators, including state senator Ralph Northam from Norfolk, who views it as a weapon on the war against obesity, diabetes and other ailments of a sedentary lifestyle.

Regular readers of the Curmudgeon know that we're no fans of obesity (although our biggest peeve for the cause of this epidemic is oversized serving portions). While we're in favor of getting school children to be more active, we think this law, well-intentioned as it is, is the wrong way to achieve it's goals.

It is certainly true that some elementary school age children aren't getting enough physical activity. But many other school children are getting plenty of exercise. This one-size-fits-all approach will end up hurting some students by taking away time for academics, arts, music and other important subjects. There is only so much time in the school day, so more PE will result in less of something.

It appears that the General Assembly passed the bill without doing much research or study. We'd prefer that the governor send it back for more discussion, including input from schools on other possible options for giving children the physical activity they need.

Here's one possibility: allow parents to provide evidence that their children are getting the requisite exercise by certifying participation in programs outside the schools, such as soccer, basketball, gymnastics, etc. In Arlington, we have an extensive program of sports activities organized through the Parks Dept., as do most other Virginia counties, that cover thousands of school children.

For those children who AREN'T enrolled in exercise programs outside of school, the schools (or Parks Depts.) could organize AFTER SCHOOL programs. If the state wants to make sure kids are getting what they need, it can set up a commission to set standards for such programs. The schools could still be responsible for collecting the data needed to show that children are getting their needed exercise, but they would not then be spending precious school time giving extra PE to kids who don't need it.

There is some interesting data in Arlington on this score. The Arlington Soccer Association, which provides an extensive array of soccer activities for more than 6000 children, keeps tabs on the number of kids participating in its programs from each school in the district. The range is dramatic: at a couple of elementary schools, about 50% of the kids play in recreational soccer, which consists of at least one hour-long practice and rougly hour-long game per week in the Fall and Spring. At a handful of other elementary schools, however, fewer than 5% of kids participate. The average is about 30%.

The primary reason for this disparity appears to be that in many lower income families, working parents cannot provide the transportation to get their kids to and from practices and games. Arlington Soccer is beginning to experiment with after-school soccer programs, held on school grounds, as one way to bolster participation at these schools. Funding, of course, is an issue, but the state might find it much less expensive to provide supplementary after-school sports/exercise programs to those children who need it than to require more in-school programs for all children.

Arlington Soccer believes it (and other youth sports groups, coordinated through the Parks Dept.) could fill the gap for far less than it would cost to add PE teachers and facilities, without sacrificing other aspects of the school experience.

Let's send this well-intentioned, but flawed, legislation back for more study.

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