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Gym-class backers cite obesity rate; foes urge more learning

Bill would make it required course

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / September 21, 2011

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Enforcing physical education requirements for public schools would crowd out students’ opportunities to take advanced academic courses and put them at a disadvantage as they prepare for college, a Newburyport School Committee member testified yesterday at the State House.

Members of the city’s school board made their case as they urged lawmakers to reject efforts backed by a coalition to include gym as a required course.

“We limit the academic choices students can make so they can play volleyball during the school day,’’ said Bruce Menin, vice chairman of the School Committee.

Menin, testifying at a hearing of the Committee on Education - with only three of the committee’s 17 members on hand - said “stagnant’’ state aid to schools has limited the ability of students in Newburyport to take courses such as advanced placement chemistry and advanced placement physics.

Cutbacks have forced Newburyport parents to pay for their children to participate in after-school sports, Menin added, asserting that it was unfair for those students to be required to take gym classes during the day.

But gym teachers, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, public health advocates, and other backers of legislation to enforce minimum physical education standards in all grades and all public schools described a “public health crisis’’ in Massachusetts of obese and overweight children that could be alleviated by required physical education.

“We’re essentially playing with our children’s life expectancy,’’ said Valerie Bassett, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

The bill, filed by state Senator Thomas McGee, Democrat of Lynn, and cosponsored by 15 colleagues, would ban waivers from physical education, require the appointment of a state official to ensure compliance with the law, and include a review of all physical education standards.

Although physical education is required in Massachusetts schools, state regulations set no minimum time requirements for students to participate, and budget crunches have led some districts to scale back or eliminate their programs.

The Boston Foundation, which testified in support of mandating minimum time requirements for gym class, estimated that in 2009, half of the students in Massachusetts public schools took no physical education classes. Today, it said, 30 percent of Boston public schools offer no gym classes at all.

“These kind of stats show that there is a country in crisis right now,’’ said state Representative Gloria Fox, a Boston Democrat, who described a “junk food epidemic’’ in schools. Fox backed a separate bill that would also require minimum levels of physical education and activity in schools.

State Representative David Vieira, Republican of Falmouth, wondered whether students who participate in after-school sports should be able to waive gym requirements to enable them to focus on academics during the school day. But advocates for required physical education argued that gym classes employ specific, measurable standards.