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Support Teachers and Students to Ensure Quality Physical Education for All [Updated]

by Robert García and Ramya Sivasubramanian
on September 5, 2013 12:00 PM

Update 9/13: The Governing Board of the L.A. Unified School District passed the resolution (referenced below) funding physical education on September 10, 2013. See this link for details.


Students throughout California -- and especially children of color and low-income children -- are not receiving the physical education to which they are entitled. The health of our students is at stake, and we must make sure that physical education is a priority for all school districts.

Teachers make a difference. Evidence-based social science research supports teacher training and professional development as an effective way of ensuring quality physical education. Schools should provide teachers with training focused on activity-based physical education.

School board members Bennett Kayser and Steve Zimmer from the Los Angeles Unified School District have introduced a resolution to do just that. Their resolution to support "Elementary Physical Education" would restore state funds for their intended purpose -- "to provide physical education instruction by teachers with a single subject credential in physical education in elementary schools and provide equipment and supplies," according to the resolution.

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This funding -- called Physical Education Teacher Incentive Program (PETIP) -- is necessary to ensure quality education, including physical education for all, in compliance with education and equal protection laws. It can also help restore between 17 and 31 full time teacher positions, serving between 41 and 124 schools, when leveraged with other grants and individual elementary school allocations for additional physical education hours.

The School Board will vote on this resolution on September 10, 2013.

There is overwhelming public support for physical education in public schools. California voters are in "nearly unanimous agreement" (97%) that it is important for schools to encourage more physical activity during the school day, according to a 2012 Field poll. Three in four surveyed (74%) think that providing more physical activity during school hours will have a positive effect on academic achievement. Large majorities believe that public investments aimed at keeping people healthy pay for themselves in the long run, by preventing disease and reducing health care costs (73%). A large percentage (68%) think a comprehensive program to prevent childhood obesity would be worth it even if it increased government spending by billions of dollars, according to a 2011 Field poll.

Yet half the school districts audited by the California Department of Education between 2005 and 2009 did not comply with state education laws, which require that elementary students receive an average of 200 minutes, and secondary students 400 minutes, of physical education every ten school days. The California Court of Appeal held in 2010 that the law means what it says, and parents and students can sue schools for failure to provide physical education.

Norwood Elementary School PE class. Photo by Tim Wagner for Partnership for the Public's Health


In response to a community and legal organizing campaign spearheaded by The City Project, LAUSD voluntarily adopted a physical education plan under the state education code and state and federal civil rights laws in December 2009, to comply with physical education and equal protection requirements. The campaign included five major elements:

  1. The teachers' union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, organized support among teachers, parents, students, and the community.
  2. Attorneys filed administrative complaints with the district.
  3. The school board unanimously passed a resolution directing staff to comply with physical education and civil rights laws.
  4. The district adopted a detailed physical education plan.
  5. The campaign was based on evidence-based social science research on the value of physical education for health and academics. 

According to Dr. Robert Ross, President of the California Endowment, "The physical education plan adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District is a best practice example for districts across the state to provide a quality education for the children of California."

The City Project, with experts at UCLA and the Sarah Samuels Center for Public Health Research & Evaluation, monitored LAUSD's implementation of the physical education plan from 2009 to 2012. The monitoring study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, shows, for example, that middle and high school teachers provided more moderate to vigorous physical activity than elementary school teachers. This may be because those teachers had specialized training and credentials in physical education, while elementary school classes more commonly were taught by classroom teachers without special credentials.

The Institute of Medicine's recent report, "Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School," recommends that teachers receive training and ongoing professional development in physical education. This dovetails with The City Project's results.

The people of California voted to tax themselves to preserve $6 billion per year for public education, by passing Measure 30 in November 2012. The 20-point margin of victory was due to Latino, African American, and Asian American voters -- the people who disproportionately have children in public schools. People of color helped preserve school funding and are entitled to their fair share of the benefits, including funds for a quality education with physical education.

Equal protection laws and principles require equal access to public resources, including school funding. Elementary school students in districts that did not comply with the minutes requirements are more likely to be Hispanic or black, while schools in compliant districts included fewer low-income students, according to a 2012 study. Education funding, including funding for physical education, should be distributed equitably based on need to address these disparities.

Physical education provides students the opportunity to learn the fundamental skills that are the foundation of a healthy, physically active lifestyle. In addition, research documents that physical education can help reduce obesity and health disparities; promote the sound development of the child; prepare students with the skills, knowledge and confidence to be physically active throughout their lives; contribute to better academic performance; and improve retention and graduation rates.

The resolution by school board members Kayser and Zimmer to restore state PETIP funds to their intended purpose -- physical education -- moves our schools in the right direction. It supports our teachers and students, and can help ensure quality physical education for all.

Readers can write to school board members asking them to vote "yes" on the resolution to support "Elementary Physical Education." The contact information for each school board member is available here.

Top: Norwood Elementary School PE class. Photo by Tim Wagner for Partnership for the Public's Health.

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