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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Middle school P.E. is still on Florida's chopping block


Normally, less meddling from Tallahassee in local affairs is welcome, but not a plan to de-emphasize physical education in middle schools.

A bill by Rep. Larry Metz, a Republican from Lake County, would drop the P.E. mandate for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. School boards could use gym and playground time to teach math, reading and other core academics.

School boards would have the option, and we'd like to think that most would choose not to neglect the important physical side of a student's development. But some, no doubt, would. Budget shortfalls, required coursework and the quest for ever-higher test scores would lead some districts to kid themselves that youngsters can get all the exercise they need after school.

If they were active outside of class, nearly one-third of Florida's boys and girls would not be overweight. When not doing their homework, school children these days are drawn to computer games, the Internet, social media and TV. You don't see many playing ball, riding bikes or building tree houses.

Metz argues that schools should be free to use limited resources to pursue their highest goals. But they're not really free, considering the many academic mandates they face.

If the goal is not to micromanage, as bill supporters say, then why not let locally elected boards drop math or reading if they choose? Why just P.E.?

The P.E. requirement is a mandate that attempts to force balance. The pressure is all from the academic side.

Everyone agrees that Florida schools must be competitive with the rest of the nation and the world. Eliminating P.E. may seem like a cheap way to improve scores.

And a staff analysis of the bill says it would have no apparent fiscal impact. That means it wouldn't cost anything to keep students in class instead of introducing them to a sport or activity that they could enjoy the rest of their lives.

That no-cost estimate holds up only in the short run. The American Heart Association, an opponent of the no-P.E. bill, notes that obesity is on its way to replacing tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death in this country.

Nationwide, the health costs of obesity are enormous. The state's goal should be to produce well-rounded students, not a generation of overweight bookworms.

Not only is this generation of students hooked on computer games, fewer of them walk or ride their bikes to school. The trend seems to be to put everyone on a bus or in a car. A new federal transportation bill would cut all federal funding that creates safe bicycle and pedestrian paths to schools.

Physical well-being and mental health go hand in hand. Even unathletic students benefit from exposure to the physical side of life. Sports and exercise can reinvigorate and allow better concentration. After a workout, children are less excitable and less frustrated with having to sit at a desk.

Students who aren't paying attention won't learn no matter how long they stay in class. But there are other important lessons to be learned outside the classroom.

In physical activities, students learn teamwork, how to follow the rules, and the importance of discipline and morale. They get to practice leadership and appreciate good sportsmanship. They feel the thrill of victory and learn how to deal with defeat. And they learn the value of exercise, which should reward them the rest of their lives.

If the state is going to require anything in school, it should require P.E.

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