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Physical-Education Requirement Upheld in Massachusetts

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An appeals-court panel in Massachussetts has overturned a lower-court ruling that would have exempted the Worcester Vocational-Technical High School from compulsory physical-education instruction because the school cannot afford the program.

Assistant Attorney General Joan Entmacher said the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that the state's compulsory-education law requiring physical education in public schools also applies to vocational-education schools. She said the attorney for the independent vocational school, which is administered by a local board of trustees, had argued that physical education was not a basic curriculum requirement for vocational schools under state law.

The unanimous decision of the appeals-court panel is expected to be appealed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, according to Bennett Gordon, attorney for the school's board of trustees. But Mr. Gordon refused to make any further comments on the case.

Because of the reduction in state aid to local schools last year as a result of the statewide property-tax cutting measure, Proposition 2, the board of trustees voted, in April 1981, to eliminate the physical-education program at the vocational school and lay off six physical-education instructors. The trustee's decision affects approximately 1,200 students attending the vocational-technical school.

The Worcester Vocational Teachers Association filed suit in Worcester County Superior Court, according to Sandra C. Quinn, the union's attorney, because four of the six teachers given layoff notices were tenured and, as the group's lawyers contended in court, the board's action violated state's statute covering basic compulsory education.

The state intervened in the case at the request of teachers' union, according to Ms. Entmacher, because the question involved state law.

Ms. Entmacher said this is the state's first case questioning the physical-education requirement and its application to vocational schools.

Under the state's compulsory-education statute, basic-education requirements for public schools are outlined in one chapter and those for vocational education are covered in another, which does not mention physical education as a requirement.

When they were first established in the state, vocational-education schools were not subject to state compulsory-attendance laws, according to Ms. Entmacher. That changed, however, when vocational schools became supplemental to the "regular public-school education" and were placed under the jurisdiction of the state board of education.

In its decision, the appeals-court panel ruled that vocational schools are viewed and treated by the state education department in the same manner as public schools, Ms. Quinn said.

Ms. Quinn also noted that the appeals court ignored the financial reasons initially given for dropping physical education. She pointed out that the board of trustees retained all "competitive sports" while eliminating the physical-education program.

Edward Melikian, information officer for the Massachusetts Education Department, said school districts statewide are facing financial difficulties. He said the larger cities are "suffering the most." (Worcester is among the three largest cities in the state.)

But Massachusetts has relaxed its required 60 hours of physical education for students from kindergarten through grade 12, according to Mr. Melikian, "so that local school districts can "schedule instruction at their convenience." The board of trustees, which acts independently of the local school board, did not apply for a waiver from the state.

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