WASHINGTON -- With public schools cutting back on spending for physical education, some members of Congress want to intervene, worried that the nation's schools are churning out too many fat kids.
The cutbacks are happening across the country.
In Washington, the Franklin Pierce school district in the Tacoma suburb of Parkland discovered that it could save a quarter-million dollars by reassigning its seven physical education teachers to different positions.
And in New York, a city audit found that only 6 percent of the city's schools came near to offering the required two hours of physical education for elementary-age children each week.
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"It's obviously a clear problem," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. "Childhood obesity is spiking, and actually our overall health is ... declining."
When Congress considers overhauling its federal education law, Smith and a bipartisan group of 84 other House members want to include language that would pressure schools to offer more PE. Their idea is to force school officials to issue yearly reports on how much time students engage in physical activity, making it easier for the public to compare schools.
"Most schools offer physical education and health, but now we want to keep track of that," Smith said. He said schools would be offered "a broad encouragement to say, 'Hey, we ought to be paying attention to physical health.' "
It's all part of a plan to try to fight an alarming increase in childhood obesity. Recent studies show that 17 percent of the nation's 6- to 19-year-olds are obese, and that more than a third are overweight. Those rates have about doubled in the past three decades.
The plan will face opposition from many Republicans, who argue that curriculum decisions should be left to the states and local school boards.
When the House Education and the Workforce Committee last year suggested changes to the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, Republicans proposed scrapping 43 school programs, including the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, which gives PE grants to local school districts. Many Republicans on the panel said that giving money to the schools to promote PE was an inappropriate role for the federal government.
But the program survived and in December, Congress signed off on $78.8 million in grants for 2012.
Only five states -- Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont -- require PE from kindergarten through 12th grade. And no federal law requires PE to be offered. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell vetoed a bill that would have required the state's public schools to teach PE in elementary and middle schools, calling the measure an unfunded mandate.
Forty-eight states have their own standards for PE, but only two-thirds require local districts to comply with them, according to a 2010 report by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, known as NASPE.
The report, called "Shape of the Nation," said almost two-thirds of high school students are not getting enough exercise, with more than a third watching TV at least three hours a day.
NASPE, along with many health organizations, recommends that students exercise for at least an hour each day. And the group suggests that schools provide at least 150 minutes per week of PE for elementary-age children and 225 minutes for middle and high school students.
Members of Congress are offering many plans to get kids exercising.
The FIT Kids Act co-sponsored by Smith would measure schools on how they are progressing in comparison to national standards. And it would pay for research to examine the link between children's health and their academic achievement. The bill's other sponsors are Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.