Virginia lawmakers approve PE requirement for elementary, middle school students

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

RICHMOND - Virginia lawmakers voted Tuesday to require that all children in public elementary and middle schools participate in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week to help fight the growing problem of childhood obesity.

The change would be most significant in kindergarten through fifth grade, where experts estimate that fewer than 10 percent of schools in Virginia meet the standard.

"The facts are, children are getting bigger and bigger,'' said Del. John M. O'Bannon III (R-Henrico), who introduced the bill in the House. "There are tremendous downstream consequences of that. I think this is a fair trade-off."

But some school district officials oppose the looming requirement - to be implemented in 2014 - saying it could extend the school day, lead to cuts in arts and music classes, or increase costs because additional teachers would be needed.

"Schools can't be expected to solve all of society's problems," said Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who lobbied against the legislation.

In Fairfax County, the state's largest school district, students at 139 elementary schools are required to take at least 60 minutes of physical education a week. Prince William County requires 90 minutes a week for students at 55 elementary schools.

Both Michelle Obama and Virginia's first lady, Maureen McDonnell, have made getting children to eat healthier and exercise more a top priority.

The General Assembly's bill follows a new law by the D.C. Council, which last year approved school nutrition and physical education standards that were among the strictest in the country. The measure called for 150 minutes of physical education in elementary schools and 225 minutes in middle schools. (Maryland does not have similar requirements.)

In Virginia, the Republican-led House of Delegates passed the bill Tuesday, 65 to 31. The Democratic-led Senate voted for the bill last week, 37 to 2. The bills differ slightly - the House exempts kindergartners who attend school half-days and does not require daily activity - but the Senate is expected to accept the House version. Neither bill allows recess to be included in the 150 minutes.

A spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he would review the legislation before deciding whether to sign it into law.

The Virginia Education Association, which represents thousands of teachers across the state, opposes the measure but supports the goal to provide more physical activity for children.

Robley S. Jones, the VEA's director of government affairs, said schools' budgets have been cut by 15 percent since 2008 and are being asked to do more. He said that if the state wants to implement the program correctly, it should provide districts with money for additional teachers or facilities. "There is a cost to this," he said.

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