Physical education legislation approved last month by the U.S. House has sparked mixed reactions, with champions, including the American Heart Association, hailing it as an important step toward combating childhood obesity and improving the health of young people, even as critics suggested that the measure’s new reporting requirements would burden local schools already struggling to meet a vast array of federal mandates.
The Fitness Integrated with Teaching, or FIT, Kids Act would impose a new set of reporting requirements on virtually all school districts to make it easier for members of the public to learn what physical activities and education schools offer. It would not authorize federal aid for districts to spend on physical education, but does call for an unspecified amount of funding for the National Research Council to examine and make recommendations on “innovative and effective ways to increase physical activity” for students and to study the impact of physical education on students’ ability to learn.
The bill, approved April 21, still must win approval in the Senate, where analysts say it could get bogged down in slow-moving efforts to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Days before the bill passed the House on a voice vote with bipartisan support, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new study finding “substantial evidence” that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, though nearly half of the relevant data examined did not provide a statistically significant link to better grades. The report, based on a review of existing studies, found very little evidence to suggest that increasing or maintaining time for physical education was academically harmful.
“P.E. has been squeezed out of our schools; it needs to be welcomed back with both arms,” Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican from Tennessee and co-author of the measure, said during floor debate April 21 on the bill, which has strong Democratic support. “If we are going to have federal involvement in education decisions, we better have P.E. as part of the mix.”
But Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah said the bill was another example of heavy-handed federal involvement in schools.
“Are the goals of this program good? Yes,” he said on the House floor. “Should the federal government take the initiative to introduce it? No. ... [S]omeone has to stand up and say, ‘We are not a school board.’ ”
“[T]he reporting requirements that will be mandated on every district in this nation by this bill will produce more resentment than reform,” Mr. Bishop added.
The legislation comes amid growing concern about childhood obesity in the United States, which recent studies indicate has increased substantially. According to the American Heart Association, about 12 million U.S. children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are considered obese.
“With less activity physically in school and more time at the remote and the mouse, kids are generally becoming bigger and bigger and becoming less and less healthy,” said Dr. Robert DiBianco, a spokesman for the association, based in Dallas. “What I think the FIT Kids Act will do is at least provide to parents the opportunity to understand the amount of physical education their kids are getting in schools.”Under the House bill, any district that receives funding under the federal Title I program would have to post on its website, or otherwise make available each year to families, information on:
• The amount of time students are required to spend in P.E., disaggregated by grade level, and how this compares with national recommendations;
• Whether its schools follow an “age-appropriate physical education curriculum”; and
• How its schools are promoting “healthy lifestyles,” including school programs and policies on nutrition, physical education, and physical activity.
Districts would have to assist each school in “collecting and disseminating” similar information to families, as well as a description of the facilities available for P.E. and physical activity. They also would have to submit to the state data on the amount of time students at all grade levels are required to spend in P.E. classes,which the state would then make public.
Megan M. Wolfe, the government relations manager for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, based in Reston, Va., argued that the demands are reasonable.
“The bill doesn’t mandate P.E.,” she said. “The issue addressed so much outweighs the small burden on schools.”
Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, said that many GOP lawmakers were heartened by changes made to the legislation before it was approved to ease the burdens on school districts, but said they still have some misgivings they hope to address as the bill proceeds.
“Many Republicans remain concerned about the cost of any new reporting requirements on our schools, particularly in the current economic environment,” she said.
Roberta E. Stanley, the director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, said the legislation has “admirable goals,” and that her group supports efforts to combat childhood obesity. At the same time, she, too, expressed some concerns.
“All this data collection does cost money, and it’s critical that along with such requirements—and these seem to be rather fine-tuned—that we think about the resources to do that,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Federal Physical Ed. Legislation Generates Mixed Reactions