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.

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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 state, 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.

“It’s obviously a clear problem,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma. “Childhood obesity is spiking, and actually our overall health is to some degree declining.”

When Congress considers overhauling its federal education law early this year, 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 have shown 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 Congress signed off in December on $78.8 million in grants for 2012.

The grants have helped schools across the country beef up their physical-education offerings.

Seattle Public Schools, the largest school district in Washington, was awarded more than $650,000 through the Carol M. White program in 2011. More will be doled out over the next two years, pending a look at the program’s success.

Lori Dunn, the district’s physical-education and health-literacy program manager, said the grant is an enormous help to a program suffering from cutbacks and what Dunn called a “very minimal” budget — despite a focus on physical education in the past few years.

Dunn said Wednesday it would be hard to overstate the grant’s importance, adding that it supports initiatives aiming to teach students about lifelong fitness and combat obesity. She said she supports potential federal changes encouraging physical education.

The Sumner School District, also in Washington, bought a new curriculum and new equipment with a $1.2 million grant, and the Kennewick School District updated its curriculum with a $750,000 grant.

Political battle

School officials expect the fight over funding to intensify this year in Washington, D.C., with education facing automatic cuts of $3.5 billion in 2013 — roughly 8 percent of the overall budget — after a congressional supercommittee failed to deliver a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan in November.

Currently, only five states — Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont — require physical education every year from kindergarten through 12th grade. And no federal law requires PE to be offered.

Forty-eight states have their own standards for physical education, but only two-thirds of them require local districts to comply, 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 that nearly two-thirds of all high-school students are not getting enough exercise, with more than a third of them watching television for at least three hours a day.

NASPE, along with many health organizations, recommends that students exercise for at least an hour every 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. Alabama is the only state that’s following the recommendations.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., is sponsoring a bill that would put NAPSE’s recommendations into law. If Congress doesn’t act, he said, obesity-related costs could hit $1 trillion a year by 2030 and could “literally bankrupt our nation.”

State’s standards

In Washington state, schools are required to offer 100 minutes of physical education per week in kindergarten through eighth grade. But the state does not require daily recess and does not issue a report card for each school.

The state mandates two health and fitness credits to graduate from high school, but schools are free to exempt students from participating in physical education.

And schools have little to worry about when it comes to state oversight.

“We do not track who is in compliance or who provides waivers,” said Lisa Rakoz, the state’s program supervisor for health and fitness education.

As another part of its recommendations, NAPSE said that all physical-education classes should be delivered by certified and licensed PE teachers.

That’s not always the case.

In Bellingham, parents sued the School Board in the past school year for not offering enough PE with certified specialists. Tanya Rowe, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district resolved the dispute without going to court by adding a specialist for children in kindergarten through second grade.

The Franklin Pierce district cut its budget by $350,000 when it ordered its certified PE staff to teach other classes, eliminating seven PE positions.

The district signed a $100,000 contract with the local YMCA to offer classes to students. The district says that the YMCA personnel “coach,” not “teach,” and that they provide “structured physical activity,” not physical education. The School Board approved the plan when it faced a $4.8 million budget shortfall last year.

Willie Painter, the district’s spokesman, said the transition has been functioning well but is not ideal.

“We would love to have the money to fund our PE specialists and the many other positions which have been lost over the past five years,” he said. “But we are also faced with living in the new normal.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Lark Turner contributed to this report.