By PATRICK HOWARD
Capital News Service
LANSING – A recent federal study echoes concerns by Michigan health professionals that link the lack of time set aside for physical and health education classes in K-8 schools to increasing childhood obesity.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of public schools indicates that while sports opportunities for students have generally increased, the frequency of physical education classes has decreased.
Noting the “federal government’s role in promoting the health and welfare of children,” the study aims to assist congressional consideration of strategies to increase physical activity among students.
Katherine Knoll of Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan, a coalition dedicated to reducing obesity, said the study is relevant to the state’s situation. She cited three pending pieces of legislation to address concerns raised by the Department of Community Health.
The bills, introduced by Reps. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, Richard Hammel, D-Mount Morris Township, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, would require schools to provide a specific number of hours of health and physical education classes. Schools that fail to meet the requirements would lose state aid.
Schools must offer physical education for grades K-8, but there’s no minimum number of hours. Bauer’s bill would require 30 minutes at least two days per week for elementary students and 45 minutes per day for middle schoolers.
Hammel’s bill would require elementary students to have at least 15 hours per year of health education and middle schoolers to have at least 50 hours. Tlaib’s bill would provide funding for the new requirements.
The legislation followed comments by both Gov. Rick Snyder and Community Health Director Olga Dazzo about the state’s obesity problem. Snyder also spoke about the trend in his State of the State Address in January, calling it “disturbing” and encouraging personal responsibility in dealing with obesity.
Angela Minicuci, communications specialist for MDCH, said the state has about 800,000 obese children. She said obesity contributes to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes while affecting student achievement inside and outside of the classroom.
She said more active and health-educated youth are crucial to curbing obesity. “Children spend the majority of their time in schools. That being said, it’s important that we work with the Department of Education in making sure kids are active while they’re there.”
Knoll said her coalition teamed up with a survey research firm to conduct a statewide poll to determine if there was widespread support for the proposed legislation.
She said the measures received strong bipartisan support, noting that 76 percent of polled individuals supported requiring public schools to teach about obesity prevention through mandatory physical and health education classes.
“This poll indicates how serious Michigan voters are about curbing the childhood obesity epidemic in our state. The health of our children is a nonpartisan issue and this poll proves that,” Hammel said.
Knoll said it was encouraging to see how much physical and health education means to the public, noting that 65 percent supported spending more state dollars for that purpose.
The GAO said that most school officials around the country cite budget restraints and inadequate facilities as significant challenges.
The study also detailed some state, district and officials’ belief that increased importance on reading and math under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act has shifted priorities away from physical education.
Citing one local school official, it said, “This focus on academic assessments had led his district to reduce the amount of PE it offers students.”
However, Jan Ellis of the Michigan Department of Education stopped short of linking the 11-year-old federal law to increases in the state’s childhood obesity rate.
“Whether it’s hereditary or lifestyle-related, the problem is too complex to narrow down to some specific causal effect,” Ellis said.
The department is concerned with the rate of childhood obesity and will continue to support measures to increase physical and health-related activities. However, it seems highly unlikely that a connection can be drawn between No Child Left Behind and increases in the obesity rate, Ellis said.
The National Association of Sport in Physical Education said that even without a proven link, the federal law’s omission of physical education from the list of “core academic subjects” sends the wrong message.
The association, which is based in Reston, Va., represents 15,000 physical education teachers, athletic directors and trainers.
By federal standards, physical education is a marginal subject, encouraging a narrowed curriculum that gives school boards an incentive to either reduce or eliminate physical education, it said.
Knoll said that the proposed legislation, which is awaiting a vote in the House, will help children understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how to make healthy choices.
“Every child should have the benefit of equal education on health and wellness,” she said. “It prepares them to be personally responsible for their own health and become successful, productive citizens.”