Civil rights and public health watchdog groups in California allege that state education officials have failed to provide quality physical education to black and Latino children. The California Department of Education’s lack of compliance with state and federal laws requiring public schools to give a set amount of P.E. instruction is akin to racial discrimination, the groups said in an administrative complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education Friday.
The lack of compliance has contributed to less than a quarter of black students and just over a quarter of Latino students passing annual physical fitness tests in 2015, the groups said. While slightly more than 30 percent of California’s children ages 10 through 17 are considered overweight or obese in California, the rate of obesity is more pronounced in black and Latino children, said Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
“Too often these ethnic and racial disparities have a devastating impact on the long-term health and welfare of our children,” Goldstein, who co-authored the group’s federal complaint, said in a statement Friday. “This is a tragedy to which education leaders have turned a blind eye.”
Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Friday that the agency had not seen the complaint and deferred comment.
By law, California public schools must provide a minimum of 200 minutes of physical activity or instruction every 10 days in elementary schools and 400 minutes in middle and high schools. In all cases, the P.E. classes are to be taught by teachers credentialed in physical education. Federal law, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, requires state education officials to conduct quality audits and ensure compliance with the laws.
The groups said about half of California’s more than 970 public school districts have neglected the requirement and failed to assign qualified P.E. teachers. The underperforming schools were more likely to serve disproportionately Latino and black students, according to a study published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The state Department of Education has neither audited the legal minimum of 10 percent of school districts nor posted its findings online, as required, the group said in its complaint.
Only 26 percent of Latino and 22 percent of black students are passing the state’s annual physical fitness test, according to a 2015 study by the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Just 1 in 10 black students is considered physically fit, compared to 1 in 3 white students in districts surveyed for the study.
Overall, California’s black and Latino children ages 5-19 were obese at rates of 21 percent and 24 percent in 2012, compared to a rate of 20 percent for white children, according to the California Department of Public Health. Body mass index for children and teenagers is a number calculated from the child’s weight and height. Children are considered overweight or obese if their BMI is at or above the 85th percentile of federal growth charts broken down for age and gender, according to the California-based Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. More than a third of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are considered overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The six groups who filed the complaint include the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, the Prevention Institute and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. The complaint is not a lawsuit, but the groups want state education officials to voluntarily bring the state back into compliance with state and federal laws.
“Our coalition hopes this complaint will move the California Superintendent of Public Instruction and school districts to alleviate these indefensible disparities in education and fitness,” said Robert García, founding director and counsel for The City Project, another organization in the group of six. “Physical education is key to our students’ academic success and health.”