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School Sports Opportunities Generally on the Rise, GAO Finds

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The percentage of schools that offer students regular physical education classes declined over the past decade, but school sports opportunities appear to be increasing nationwide, according to a report released today by the Government Accountability Office.

With more than one-third of U.S. children between ages 10-17 now considered obese, the federal government is looking at ways to make childhood-obesity prevention even more of a priority. After sparing the federal Carol M. White Physical Education Program in the fiscal 2012 budget, Congress is now considering a slew of proposals aimed at increasing physical activity for children—particularly in schools.

To help Congress on this mission, the GAO examined data from the 2000 and 2006 School Health Policies and Practices Survey (SHPPS) and the 2005 and 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), both compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, GAO employees interviewed officials from four state education agencies, four state high school athletic associations, and 13 schools across California, Illinois, New York, and North Carolina.

Schools were generally offering less phys. ed. time to students in 2006 than they were in 2000, according to SHPPS data, but the number of schools requiring students to take some phys. ed. increased at each grade level over that time frame. Only an estimated one-quarter of all U.S. elementary schools offer phys. ed. three days a week (or its equivalent), the GAO found.

While the quantity of phys. ed. classes may be declining, the quality appears to be on the rise, according to the GAO. More than three-quarters of states required or suggested that schools follow the phys. ed. standards of the National Association of Sport and Physical Education in 2006, compared with only 59 percent in 2000.

School Sports Rising

Most of the education officials interviewed by the GAO suggested that school sports opportunities have generally increased, in no small part due to the creation of new sports teams over the past few years.

Officials from all four states told the GAO that they had added new sports to their statewide interscholastic competition schedule due to increased demand, and some schools reported recently adding lacrosse and badminton programs.

Also at play: increased athletic opportunities for girls. One state official told the GAO that only 49 high schools offered girls' soccer in his state in 1986; that number has grown to around 300 as of 2010.

Nationwide, boys still outnumber girls in high school sports, at a ratio of roughly 3:2, according to the 2011 High School Athletics Participation Survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations, but female participation has increased every year since 1988-89.

A majority of officials told the GAO that budget cuts have put a crimp in phys. ed. and school sports programs, with schools struggling to attract coaches and afford transportation for road games. Limited facilities also plagued nine of the 13 schools the GAO visited—one school used its cafeteria as its gymnasium, too.

Roughly 33 percent of schools had instituted pay-to-play fees to keep sports programs afloat, according to SHPPS data, but 86 percent of those schools reported that they'd waive the fees for students who couldn't afford them. The GAO noted that some schools were taking advantage of alternative funding sources, including one that relied on upwards of $60,000 of ticket sales each year.

The GAO didn't offer any recommendations in the report, but concluded with this sentiment:

Identifying practical ways to increase students' physical activity may be difficult, but the need to address childhood obesity—and the opportunity to shore up such efforts in the school context—serves as a compelling starting point for addressing obesity-related health issues and their associated costs.

It's now up to Congress to figure out the best way to do so.

Photo: A panel including Laureus Chairman Edwin Moses and Up2Us executive director Paul Caccamo speaks on Capitol Hill on Tues., Mar. 20, about the release of a report on K-12 phys. ed. and sports from the Government Accountability Office. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images for Laureus)

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