Initial reaction to the governor's budget focused on his ambitious infrastructure program. What many missed was his equally tenacious dedication to rebuilding the shape of California's student bodies.
For decades, politicians have focused on California's schools, developing and implementing programs to recapture lost academic ground. What Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget recognizes, however, is that those efforts have largely come at the cost of diminishing student fitness. Student weight and fitness levels continue to slip, as schools shift both time and fiscal resources away from physical education to support basic academics. The governor's $85 million allocation to support physical-education instruction in California schools takes a fundamental step in reversing that dangerous trend.
How bad is the situation? The California Department of Education found in 2014 that 75 percent of the state's fifth-grade students failed to meet the state's physical-fitness standards. We're not talking about super athletes versus average kids; were talking about 3 in 4 students unable to pass the most basic strength, flexibility and stamina tests. The same testing found that more than 28 percent of students were overweight.
No one should be surprised by the governor's infusion of funds into physical-education programs. His first major foray into politics was an initiative to fund after-school programs. In his State of the State address, he acknowledged his support of legislation to make California schools a model of healthy eating as one of his greatest successes in 2014. This governor realizes that the future of California lies not only in our infrastructure but also in our children.
California is in dire need of investing in its crumbling physical-education system. The California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance notes that class size for physical education is significantly larger than for other academic subjects. Physical education advocates also note a dearth of funding to support continuing education of teachers in the area of physical education. Clearly, California has left "P.E." behind as an essential component of children's health and education. With the state's growing obesity rates, declining fitness scores and struggling academic scores, it is time for this to change.
Physical education has the potential to lay the building blocks for physical activity in adulthood. Just as a quality reading program has the potential to instill a lifelong love of reading, so can a quality physical education program foster a lifetime love of physical activity.
Beyond health concerns, the investment in physical activity is also an investment in student performance. P.E. is an essential component of a comprehensive education. According to a 2014 report in the Journal of School Health, quality physical education reinforces many of the traits we seek in children: strong social skills, improved mental health and reduced risk-taking behaviors. And, of central importance in this era of standardized tests, as the Journal of School Health noted, "physical activity during the school day offers short-term cognitive benefits that adequately compensate for the time spent away from other academic areas."
Naysayers will challenge the investment of $85 million for physical education as frivolous and misguided. A look at the public ledger, however, argues the opposite. According to the California Department of Health Services, the state spent a whopping $13 billion for the direct and indirect costs of physical inactivity in adults.