Idaho phys ed proposal sparks funding worries

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - To longtime physical education teacher Linda Hostert, physical education classes aren't just lessons in basketball, aerobics or even body sculpting.

They're lessons in life.

A 25-year veteran of Bonneville Joint School District 93, Hostert said P.E. classes instill a sense of teamwork, sportsmanship and cooperation in every student who comes through her doors.

"This is needed to not only teach life skills and to keep fit," she said, "but it is needed to establish these habits now. This is not just a one-time thing, this is something you need to do every day of your life."

Citing similar benefits, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna in August called for new physical education requirements in schools statewide. And while most teachers and school administrators applaud the concept of getting kids more active, some wonder how the recommendations will be funded.

"Research shows that physical activity, especially when it occurs in school, not only provides many health benefits to students but also leads to better academic performance," Luna said. "Through these changes, we can better ensure all students have equal access to the same opportunities while they are in school."

Today, P.E. is required in elementary and middle schools statewide, but without a minimum time requirement. High schools are required to offer P.E., but it's not a graduation requirement.

Under Luna's proposed rule change, the state would require a minimum of 60 minutes per week of P.E. in elementary schools and a minimum of 200 minutes per week in middle schools. In high schools, students would need at least two P.E. credits to graduate.

In District 93, similar high school requirements already are in place, Hostert said.

But at schools such as Tiebreaker Elementary, where administrators have had to shuffle staff to meet increasing teacher-to-student ratios, physical education is taught 40 minutes per week. Principal Kent Patterson said the school has been forced to get by with a half-time P.E. teacher and a half-time music teacher to ensure students have access to both.

"If the state department and Superintendent Luna increases those requirements, there's going to have to be some increased funding as well," he said. "Budgets, as they are right now, are very streamlined and there's not a lot of extra wiggle room in those budgets.

"Education (in Idaho) is still being funded at 2008 levels, but we're operating in a 2013 economy and we're still struggling."

District 93 showed the largest unexpected enrollment for eastern Idaho schools that recently requested an emergency levy. The district saw an additional 402 students in the first month of school compared with last year, for a total of 11,116 students.

On Sept. 11, District 93's school board approved a more than $1.3 million emergency levy to compensate for the growth.

Idaho Falls School District 91 offers P.E. at all of its schools, but it is not currently mandated in high schools, nor is it a graduation requirement. It is mandated in elementary and middle schools.

"Childhood obesity is not going to be fixed by mandating 60 minutes of P.E. or mandating it for high schools," Superintendent George Boland said. "We are not opposed to students having physical activity, but to theorize that this will affect childhood obesity is misguided -- there is no research to support it."

Luna recommended the changes at the Idaho State Board of Education's meeting in August. The board granted initial approval, allowing time for public comment. The recommendations will return to the board in November.

If approved, the rule changes will go before the Legislature in January for final approval. If approved by the board and the Legislature, the changes would affect the class of 2019 (students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2015).

"Physical activity is important, but our primary goal is to graduate students with the skills and attributes to be successful," Boland said. "And with the current funding gap, I have a difficult time supporting the addition of a graduation requirement that has no basis in accomplishing what they are purporting to accomplish."

Hostert said maintaining physical education in elementary school is a critical component to the health and success of students later in their academic careers. It's important to maintain certified, qualified physical education instructors rather than forcing the students' classroom teachers to learn a new skill.

"They need to be funded in a way where they can hire actual P.E. teachers," she said. "They need to be able to hire someone who is trained in this type of education. Sometimes you even (hear) people say that recess is an acceptable form of exercise. With recess, the kids that need to be active the most are standing against the wall.

"It's not the same as an organized, face-to-face team activity."

Tiebreaker P.E. teacher Blaine McInelly said maintaining physical education at the elementary school level helps interdisciplinary studies.

McInelly teaches anatomy and physiology concepts such as the body's need for oxygen and how blood moves through a person's veins. He said he also works to teach younger students colors and numbers during their exercise times.

"It's just as important to have physical education as a mandatory class as any other academic class," he said. "It's a life skill. Once they become active, they stay active. So often you see kids going home to play their Nintendo games, but I want them ... going out and running and playing."

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Post Register reporter Nate Sunderland contributed to this report.

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Information from: Post Register