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Districts forced to juggle PE, academics

Oregon schools are beginning the last lap of a 10-year effort to provide a minimum number of physical education minutes to public school students, and most districts are lagging far off the pace.

The local exception is Medford, but its experience is not typical.

Concerned about rising levels of childhood obesity, Oregon lawmakers in 2007 passed a law giving public schools 10 years to provide all students with substantial minutes of PE every week. Under the law, elementary students (grades kindergarten through 5) are to receive 150 minutes of PE each week and middle-school students (grades 6-8) must get 225 minutes.

Districts have until September 2017 to meet those thresholds, but almost no districts statewide are anywhere close. Out of 197 districts, only five met the standard in every grade for every week of the 2014-15 school year.

For all districts, funding is a concern. Hiring teachers trained to teach PE or training existing staff costs money. Money budgeted to meet a PE requirement means money that isn't available for math or English, or to reduce class sizes.

Time is also a consideration. With one of the shortest school years in the country, Oregon schools are hard pressed to fit in all the classroom time students need, let alone make time for PE classes as well.

And, as is often the case, the Legislature required school districts to provide PE without appropriating enough money to do it.

Lawmakers did create a grant program, but it amounts to a token gesture, not real funding. In the current two-year budget period, 57 individual schools in 21 districts received grants, out of 1,080 schools in 197 districts. And the grants totaled only $4.5 million statewide over those two years.

Medford, with 10 elementary schools receiving grants, was one of the only districts fortunate enough to have multiple schools qualify. But each individual school must apply separately every year — filing an application that runs to 1,000 pages — and there is no guarantee existing grants will be renewed.

Among local districts, some are near the standard, but closing the gap raises questions about student choice. The Phoenix-Talent district, for example, is 25 minutes shy of the middle-school standard, which is doable, but 70 minutes short at the elementary level. Given the demands of academics, the superintendent says the only way to make it up would be to structure recess, taking away students' opportunity for unstructured play — which is also a valuable and necessary outlet for children.

Physical activity is important to children's development, and regular exercise helps them do better in class, as well. But every minute spent in PE is a minute not spent on academics, and every dollar spent to hire a PE teacher is not available to pay a classroom teacher.

Lawmakers should revisit the program, and next fall's deadline, when they convene next year. They also should take this as their own lesson: New programs require new money and it is wishful thinking that school districts can create them without funding.