It may take the courts to decide the merits of a lawsuit claiming that three dozen California school districts have scrimped on physical education.
But this much is certain already: The suit is inspiring needed examination of schools’ approaches to this vital part of the curriculum.
The depressing general truths about children’s levels of physical fitness are known to anybody who hasn’t been living under a rock — or living in their parents’ basement, playing video games instead of getting a little exercise outside.
Too many school kids are out of shape and untutored in fitness techniques, raising their risks for poor health later in life and affecting their ability to learn in the classroom.
On state tests measuring California kids’ fitness in 2013, only 25.5 percent of fifth-graders, 32.5 percent of seventh-graders and 36.8 percent of ninth-graders made the “healthy fitness zone” in all six categories.
In the category called “body composition,” 33.7, 30.1 and 26.2 percent of students at the respective grade levels produced test results suggesting they face “health risk.”
The California Department of Education published those and other statistics last fall in a news release cheerfully heralding students’ “slight gains in physical fitness.” True, some numbers improved by a percentage point — or less. But the data wasn’t reassuring.
People may not want to hear that their kids are (as we might say euphemistically) deficient in the area of body composition. Remember the outcry last year when school officials sent out what came to be known as “fat letters,” informing parents if a child was particularly heavy for his or her height. But it’s a subject that must be confronted.
Are California schools taking it seriously enough? Has phys ed suffered from recession-era budget cuts? Has it bounced back?
According to the state education code, first- through sixth-grade students are supposed to receive at least 200 minutes of physical education per 10 school days, not including recess and lunch breaks.
But a class-action lawsuit, filed last October by a San Francisco Bay Area parent named Marc Babin and an organization called Cal200 that advocates for physical education, claims that many of the state’s largest school districts fall short of that modest, 20-minutes-a-day requirement.
Teachers are reported to have been ordered to keep their recent lesson plans as evidence of how much time has been devoted to phys ed. Whatever the records reveal, it is important for parents to know if children are getting enough exercise and physical instruction, which should go hand in hand with efforts to improve nutrition in school meals.
A 2012 study led by a San Francisco State University professor showed that students are more likely to pass fitness tests if their schools comply with state phys-ed requirements. For some kids, especially if they live in dangerous neighborhoods, the school playground may offer the only exercise they get.
However the lawsuit turns out, if it causes education officials to examine whether California children are getting enough phys-ed and take action if they aren’t, that’s a healthy development indeed.