Go to gym class; it's the law

Lawmakers agree that elementary schoolers need PE every day.

Published May 4, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Charlie Crist can do a victory swim this morning at the Governor's Mansion.

The governor's most personal legislative priority, a daily half-hour physical education requirement for elementary school students, passed both chambers and is headed to his desk for final approval.

The Senate vote Thursday was unanimous, and a united House of Representatives passed it last week.

Just a few days ago, the legislation appeared near death because of Senate leaders' questions over what the PE initiative might cost school districts.

Senate President Pro Tem Lisa Carlton worried that daily PE classes would force many districts to add 30 minutes to their elementary schools' already-packed school days.

So for days, she refused to send the bill SB 2746 to the Senate floor for a vote. Legislation has to pass both chambers and get the governor's signature to become law.

Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of Pinellas elementary schools, said the new legislation wouldn't be that much of a stretch for the district.

About half of the 82 elementaries already devote 150 minutes a week to PE, with students engaged in physical activity 30 minutes each day, Thomas said. The other schools dedicate 120 minutes a week, dividing the time into 40-minute blocks three days a week.

But schools where children spend five days a week in PE borrow time from academics, she said. "It's a tradeoff. I don't think any one of us would say physical activity is not absolutely critical to the development of a child. It's finding the time to do it that's the issue."

There is little doubt Crist will sign the bill.

An avid swimmer who works out every day before dawn, he highlighted the PE requirement as a priority long before the session began.

Crist talks frequently about his daily workouts. Earlier this week, he began a talk with reporters by announcing: "It's a great day. I had a great workout this morning!"

Elementary and middle schools are not currently required to offer PE. Health advocates and many parents lament the fact that PE and daily recess have disappeared amid preparations for high-stakes tests like the FCAT.

Worried about rising obesity and inactivity among children, Crist began pushing the PE requirement earlier this year. He also announced a Commission on Physical Fitness and Obesity Prevention.

Sarah Krieger, a St. Petersburg registered dietitian and incoming spokeswoman of the American Dietetic Association, said she likes the initiative. With childhood obesity rates rising, she said, fitness needs to be stressed at an early age.

"The more physical education, the better, in school or out," Krieger said. "The younger a child starts, the more likely he or she is going to stick with it - along with good eating habits, of course."

A House analysis concluded that the daily PE sessions would have no impact on local governments, including school districts. The Senate analysis put no dollar figure on implementing the PE classes, but noted that each district could incur "additional costs" in developing curriculum.

The bill that passed Thursday requires the education commissioner to post curriculum and other resources on the Department of Education Web site, which could save districts time and money that might have been spent developing it on their own.

Crist said he never doubted the PE initiative would pass.

Asked about the Senate's doubts earlier this week, he smiled and quipped: "I just think it needs a workout."

Times staff writers Justin George and Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.