As high obesity rates and associated negative health effects continue to plague the U.S., policy makers, government officials and advocacy groups are exploring new solutions. Often focusing on sugar sweetened beverages, jurisdictions across the country have implemented a number of innovative measures in hopes of creating healthier communities. Several advocacy groups in California, however, are taking a different route and challenging the lack of physical education in public schools.
In August 2015, six health and civil rights advocacy groups filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights alleging discrimination in California public schools. They claim that in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are unjustified disparities in the access to physical education and fitness in California public schools on the basis of race, color, and national origin.
California state law requires a minimum number of minutes of physical education in elementary schools and middle and high schools (200 and 400 minutes over the course of 10 days, respectively). However, several studies indicate that a majority of schools are failing to meet these requirements. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine investigated whether school district compliance with the state law was associated with the levels of physical fitness among 5th graders. Researchers found that only about half of the districts were in compliance with the physical education mandates, and that students in policy compliant districts were 29 percent more likely to be physically fit compared to those students in non-compliant districts. On average, schools in policy compliant districts had significantly smaller percentages of students eligible for free or reduced priced meals. Also, students in noncompliant districts were more likely to be Black or Hispanic.
A 2015 study conducted by University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy reported considerable disparities in physical fitness among Black and Hispanic students based on a review of nearly 1,000 public schools in California from 2010-2015. Passage rates for the state’s fitness test, Fitnessgram, among 5th, 7th, and 9th graders varied significantly based on race and ethnicity. While passage rates are exceedingly low for all students, they are lower among Black (22 percent) and Hispanic students (26 percent) compared to Caucasian students (34 percent).
The plaintiffs ask the Office of Civil Rights to ensure that California school districts comply with their legal obligations to provide students with equal access to physical education regardless of race, color, or ethnicity. It requests that the California Department of Education require all school districts to utilize a toolkit created by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health which includes a self-assessment checklist and model action plan for compliance with state law and Title VI. The toolkit, used by all Los Angeles school districts, was originally created in response to an earlier 2008 administrative complaint, and is thought to have reduced disparities and increased access to physical education across the district (results were presented to the Los Angeles Unified School District in October 2015).
While the Office of Civil Rights has yet to respond, encouraging school districts to comply with physical education requirements has the potential to decrease the Body Mass Index of California students and lead to other short- and long-term health benefits. Routine physical activity may also improve students’ mental, cognitive, and psychological health by increasing self-esteem and reducing anxiety among many other benefits according to the Institute of Medicine.
This post was prepared by Kim Weidenaar J.D., Deputy Director, Network for Public Health Law – Western Region Office, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
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