Case Study: Virginia Schools and Physical Education

two girls exercising

Because of concern about childhood obesity, a bill was introduced in Virginia that would require elementary and middle schools to offer 150 minutes of physical education per week. In her story about it, Rosalind S. Helderman included an extensive list of organizations that were against the measure. The opponents included Fairfax County officials, three groups of professional educators, the Association of Counties, and the Municipal League. In other words, just about nobody was for it.

The opponents said it was an “unfunded mandate,” and an expensive one at that. (Influential libertarian Karl Hess used to live in Fairfax County. Coincidence?) Also, the time used for physical education (P.E.) would be to the detriment of academic classes. Actually, what they said was,

…due to time constraints and other requirements imposed on the public schools, the bill’s implementation will pose very significant instructional and practical problems…

Now, some would say that time lost from academics is not quite the same thing as “significant problems.” What are those instructional and practical problems, that will not allow for the inclusion of physical education in the curriculum? For one thing, a lot of Virginia schools do not have indoor gyms or other facilities, and the climate is not always suitable for outdoor activities. Staffing would have to be increased, and good luck with that in the present economic climate.

And no doubt other difficulties would exist. Back in the day, the public school could make kids buy identical blue gym suits, which may not be true now. It could lead to innumerable problems, like kids who have no money, or who refuse on constitutional grounds. Or the unavailability of a gym suit in a large enough size. If you let them wear whatever gym outfits they please, it can lead to administrative nightmares when student and staff disagree over what is appropriate.

They would have to shower and change, wouldn’t they? Seems like a lot of kids might not want to sweaty up the clothes they have to wear for the rest of the day. Showers, locker rooms, changing rooms, those environments are always problematic. And think of the potential litigation nightmares. No doubt some parents are capable of coaching a child to fake an injury so they can sue the school and take early retirement. No doubt there are kids rebellious enough to think of it themselves, and do it, out of pure resentment at being coerced into physical activity, disrobing in front of others, or having their hair or makeup messed up.

On the other side are parents and health advocates who are, of course, looking for ways to end childhood obesity. Underlying this conflict are some more basic questions: Does exercise really prevent or alleviate childhood obesity? There are different opinions, all backed up by research. Because if exercise doesn’t really make much difference, then the school district would be spending a bunch of money for no purpose.

How did it all turn out? Gov. Bob McDonnell vetoed the bill, and the Virginia senate didn’t override the veto, so the 150 minutes per week of P.E. didn’t happen. This does not mean the people of Virginia are oblivious to the childhood obesity epidemic. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Ralph Northam, is a doctor who points out that today’s children will be the first generation to die younger than their parents. Probably, few people doubt the truth of that. So all it means is, they are not convinced that P.E. in schools is the best way to deal with it.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Education, government groups urge veto of P.E. bill,” The Washington Post, 03/18/11
Source: “Senate fails to override McDonnell’s veto of bill mandating PE in public schools,” Times-Post, 04/06/11
Image by Mike Baird (mikebaird), used under its Creative Commons license.

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