With the Miami Dolphins training camp as a backdrop, former college quarterback and current Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) threw three spirals into a practice net last week, then signed a bill requiring elementary school students to get a half-hour of physical education each day.
Florida's school children next fall will be part of a trend reversal in which some states are starting to bring back physical education classes, or P.E., to combat childhood obesity. In recent years, schools under pressure to raise math and reading scores have cut down on non-academic classes such P.E., art and music.
"We're talking about young kids cooped up in the classroom all day, and for health reasons - physical health, mental health, and probably the mental health of the teachers as well - we've got to get those kids out there and let them run off some energy ," said Florida state Rep. Will Weatherford (R), the bill's sponsor and a former college linebacker whose younger brothers are quarterbacks at Florida State University and the University of Central Florida.
Previously, Florida only required that high school students complete one P.E. credit to graduate.
With more than 12.5 million overweight children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state lawmakers increasingly are worried about soaring health-care costs and are trying tactics such as making school lunches more nutritious, banning junk foods from school vending machines or reporting students' body fat to parents.
Since 2005, seven states - including Florida and Mississippi this year - have decided to bring back P.E. by mandating how often and how long students should be physically active at school. In all, about 20 states now have some sort of requirement about the length or frequency of P.E. classes, according to Trust for America's Health
, a preventive-health advocacy group.
This year at least 18 state legislatures have considered bills to set or increase the minimum number of P.E. minutes required, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Childhood obesity rates had tripled since 1980, leading the CDC to recommend that children get at least an hour of physical activity a day. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) suggests that schools set aside 150 minutes a week for P.E. for elementary school students and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school students.
In Oregon, Senate President Peter Courtney (D) is sponsoring a bill that follows NASPE's recommendations for elementary and middle school students. At a hearing, he brought several one-pound and five-pound yellow blobs of simulated fat to hammer home his point.
"When I displayed those, (the committee members) just splayed back," Courtney recalled. "It's repulsive, it's frightening, and to be told that this is what five pounds looks like in your body, it's really sad." Oregon now requires P.E. classes but doesn't specify the length or frequency.
There are significant variations among the 20-some states with laws setting specific P.E. requirements. Iowa, for example, requires 50 minutes a week for high school students, while Wisconsin requires that elementary students have P.E. at least three times a week.Only seven states come close to meeting NASPE's recommendations: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas. They require 150 minutes a week or 30 minutes a day for at least one level of students: elementary, middle or high school.
All the remaining states require some P.E., but don't mandate time or frequency. Most do require a few high school P.E. credits to graduate.
Even in states where P.E. is mandatory, enforcing it is difficult. Some states grant numerous waivers to get students out of P.E., according to Philip Haberstro, executive director of the National Association for Health and Fitness. "On one hand we do the right thing with the policies, but on the other hand we shortchange our children by not enforcing those policies," he said.
Illinois, which requires daily P.E. from kindergarten through senior year, is often cited as a state with strong requirements. But the state allows more than 330 types of waivers, including for students taking vocational or technical courses and those taking classes needed to graduate or enroll in college, according to Paula Kun of NASPE. Just last year the state added waivers for students who need tutoring.
A Texas bill hopes to increase oversight of P.E. programs. State law requires that elementary school students exercise for 30 minutes daily or 135 minutes weekly. The bill not only would expand those requirements to middle school but also would instruct schools to set up P.E. assessments and send the results to the state education agency.
Another obstacle to increasing P.E. is the pressure on schools to focus on academics. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law, for example, requires schools nationwide to make annual progress on math and reading tests or face sanctions.
Washington state Rep. John McCoy (D) said he proposed his P.E. bill after hearing that many schools were eliminating recess so that students could spend more time preparing for the state's annual standardized test. The state requires P.E. but doesn't list specifics. McCoy's bill, which died in committee, would have required schools to give K-12 students an hour of physical activity a day.
Opponents can include school boards worried about schools struggling to raise test scores.
"When you start mandating 30 minutes of time, it sounds good on the face of it. But the problem is that there's not enough time in the day already for instruction, and so mandating this extra 30 minutes is kind of hard to work in there," said Dax Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards.
Opponents also criticize new P.E. proposals for imposing requirements without proper funding. David Williams, a lobbyist for the Oregon School Boards Association, said the $5.8 million in Oregon's proposal for 150 minutes of P.E. in elementary school isn't nearly enough. "If you were to just do it straight up, it's in the $50 million to $100 million range," with the money needed mainly to hire certified P.E. teachers, he said.
Oregon's bill, which still is pending before a committee, would put $5.8 million into a grant program. When schools join the program, they have to offer the minimum P.E. minutes, but schools would have 10 years to join.