Civil Rights Groups Demand Gym Class for Obesity-Plagued Kids

Activists in California say that the pursuit of high standardized test scores in reading and math has led districts to ditch physical education.

(Photo: Chris Clinton/Getty Images)

Aug 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Anyone who’s paid even casual attention to health issues knows there’s an obesity epidemic among U.S. schoolchildren, and it’s especially bad among poor, African American, and Latino kids. A coalition of health and civil rights groups in California says it knows who’s to blame, and it’s not the usual suspects—sugary snacks, soda, and video games.

The groups say the California public school system, under pressure to meet standardized test score goals, have cut physical education classes for elementary and high school children, a violation of state and federal requirements. They say it’s a civil rights issue on par with the separate-but-equal issues raised in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

“Time and again there are new academic requirements placed on schools, and physical education gets placed at the back of the pack,” says Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “Kids pay for that with their health.”

Last week the coalition filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement demanding that California be found in violation of federal education antidiscrimination laws and be held accountable for failing to meet its own physical education standards. They want the department to require the Golden State to enforce its own physical education standards in poor and minority public schools, monitor its progress, and withhold federal grants and allocations if local officials fail or cut corners.

“It’s bad everywhere. It’s even worse in poor schools and in schools predominantly black and Latino,” Goldstein says. “We’ve been pushing for improved P.E. in schools in California for a decade. It’s having a racially discriminatory impact. We thought it was time to go to the federal government and ask it to do what it must to rectify the situation.”

According to California state law, elementary school students must get an average of at least 20 minutes of physical education per day, while high school students have to average about 40 minutes of phys ed per day. But the complaint alleges that few school systems are meeting those requirements, and it’s not unusual to find a math or science teacher leading a phys ed class instead of a trained physical educator.

The situation is even worse in poor or minority districts, according to the complaint, where quality physical education classes are as rare as up-to-date computers or new textbooks.

Now, “disparities exist in access to resources for physical education and physical fitness in public school districts throughout California based on race, color or national origin,” according to the complaint. The disparity, it continues, is a primary factor in the disproportionate rates of chronic health issues such as obesity and type 2 diabetes among minority kids.

By sacrificing phys ed time on the altar of test scores, state education officials “are contributing to this,” says Goldstein.

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That’s borne out by the dismal performance of minority kids on annual fitness tests: Roughly one-quarter of all Latino and African American students pass the annual physical fitness test, according to a 2015 study from the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. In at least 400 school districts—nearly half of the 900 surveyed—just one in 10 African American students is physically fit, compared with one in three for the average non-Hispanic white student in California.

Add in studies showing all kids perform better in school with regular exercise, Goldstein says, and “it’s all the more reason” schools should pay more attention to physical education.

California isn’t the only state giving short shrift to exercise, says Paula Kun, senior director of marketing and communications for SHAPE America, an organization of health and fitness educators.

“We recommend that elementary school students have 150 minutes per week and that the middle and high school–level students get 225 minutes per week,” she says. “A great majority of schools across the country aren’t meeting that expectation. I don't know if it’s a question of money or priorities.”

Kun agrees with Goldstein that physical education gets little attention in the public school curriculum because it isn’t considered a core subject. Meanwhile, childhood obesity has become a public health crisis, garnering the attention of the White House via First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.

“Still, it’s not one of the core subjects” that educators and policy analysts lean on when determining school curricula," says Kun. “They’re not having standardized testing in [phys ed].”

“What we’re suggesting is we still want children to have instructional phys ed, but we also know the realities of it,” she adds, suggesting that preschool or after-school programs may be a solution. Testing may take priority for school kids, she says, but “they need this every day.”