In Praise of Participation, Blog 6

By Lance Tapley
The Anti-Fan Blogger

To reprise my previous blogs: What are we talking about when we say “revolutionary” physical education?

Philosophically speaking, it’s what the late Phil Lawler, a leader in the fitness-based PE movement, described as:

“…enabling each student to maintain a physically active lifestyle forever. It means emphasizing fitness and well-being, not athleticism. It eliminates practices that humiliate students. And it assesses students on their progress in reaching personal physical activity and fitness goals. A quality PE program exposes kids to the fun and long-term benefits of movement — it’s really that simple.”

(That’s the epigraph of the book “Game Changer,” authored by League of Fans’ Ken Reed and the organization PE4life.)

To describe my Revolutionary PE proposal more specifically, it would be a big, race-to-the-moon-type national initiative to require all kids in public schools, K-12, to engage in daily exercise (a full hour of vigorous exercise, with the heart rate up) in order to burn off fat, greatly enhance health, establish fitness habits for a lifetime, and improve behavior and academic performance. It would be fun, varied in its options, and individualized, and it would have a health-education component.

Practically speaking — politically speaking — as I argued in Blog No. 5, only the federal government would be able to fund Revolutionary PE. So how much funding will Revolutionary PE need? And what would be its benefit compared to its cost?

In what follows I’m only making back-of-the-envelope calculations. I could be off by 100 percent — no, 200 percent. But at this stage I only want to rough-guess the order of magnitude of the financial need. Studies will be required to figure it out in a far more refined way. Is there a foundation out there that wants to step up to the collection plate?

First, let’s hire 100,000 additional PE teachers, one for each elementary and high school in the United States. Total annual cost, figuring a new PE teacher will need, on average, $50,000 in salary and benefits: $5 billion.

Second, let’s buy what’s necessary to ensure that a well-equipped fitness center exists in each of those 100,000 schools. In many instances, a new fitness center may just mean buying some equipment, such as exercise machines and heart-rate monitors. Some schools already have them. Many schools can share fitness centers. And most of the Revolutionary PE infrastructure is already in existence — gymnasiums, playing fields, and outdoor tracks. Where these don’t exist, however, they’ll be built.

Pursuing our back-of-the-envelope approach by guessing that the equivalent of 50,000 new fitness centers would be needed, and multiplying this number by $200,000 (derived from estimates online of what’s needed to minimally equip private fitness clubs), we need another $10 billion. And let’s have 10 percent or $2 billion for upkeep and replacement over 20 years.

But let’s have the federal government borrow the money (currently, it can at a very low interest rate) for that $12-billion capital expenditure (fitness centers and upkeep and replacement reserve). Borrowing over 20 years at 2.5 percent interest would cost $770 million in debt service per year.

Third, let’s throw in $210 million a year for local fitness public education, community-school fitness councils, and other ways to promote and organize public involvement (averaging $15,000 per school district for the 14,000 school districts). Plus, say, another $90 million a year for planning, studies, publications, and a national staff. Revolutionary PE, however, should mainly be administered by local PE teachers and community councils.

Thus, the total annual cost of Revolutionary PE — once it got going —would be $6.1 billion.

Compared to how the federal government spends money on other things — currently totaling $3.5 trillion a year — the cost of Revolutionary Physical Education would be peanuts (.002 of the budget). I don’t have the space to go into the pros and cons of the comparative expenditures listed below. Suffice it to say that it can be argued that Revolutionary PE would be more beneficial to Americans than any of them.

The federal anti-drug-war has cost $44 billion a year, according to a Harvard researcher. Illicit drug use has not declined after decades of this kind of expense, but anti-drug-abuse education could be incorporated into Revolutionary PE’s health-education component.

The latest Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, came with a $4.5-billion price tag — plus an estimated decommissioning cost of close to $1 billion. The new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, replacing the Nimitz ships, will each cost $9 billion. Ten are planned.

Here’s an easy target. Each one of the infamously expensive B-2 stealth bombers cost $2.1 billion. No more are being built (21 have been), but the Air Force is planning super-expensive replacement planes.

Let’s look at something the feds do that directly hurts our health — the subsidies to, largely, corporate farms that produce the high-fructose corn syrup and other junk-food additives put into soda and many other foods that are a central cause of the obesity epidemic. They amount to about $1 billion a year.

Finally, by way of comparison — although this isn’t a federal expense, it makes for a telling comparison — let’s cite city, county, and state taxpayer subsidization of professional-sports arenas and stadiums. In the first decade of this century, taxpayers doled out about $1 billion a year to the teams’ wealthy corporate owners, according to one study. That’s not counting tax breaks. Besides being corporate welfare, that government money directly promotes being a fan, not being fit.

Now let’s have a cost-benefit analysis. To reckon the benefit of a $6.1 billion annual expenditure for Revolutionary PE, we will not be able to quantify, of course, the increase in joy of millions of individuals in becoming fit, moving well, and looking good year-in and year-out.

And let’s put aside the greatly increased learning in the schools and productivity in the workplace of a nation of fitter kids and, eventually, fit adults. Let’s put aside the benefits of fit young people that would accrue to the military. Put aside, too, the benefits of reducing heart disease, stroke, joint problems, depression, and many other afflictions of an increasingly sedentary, obese, unfit population.

Let’s simply look at how much money nationally we could save by reducing just one predicted medical expenditure.

With current trends, diabetes is expected to afflict a third of the population by 2050 (obesity, a prime cause of diabetes, will afflict half the population by 2030). The expected annual cost of diabetes in 2034, according to a recent academic study, is $336 billion.

If Revolutionary PE cut that annual cost of diabetes by a quarter or $84 billion a year, then the annual investment in Revolutionary PE (totaled above at $6.1 billion) would be worth it 14 times over. Even if Revolutionary PE reduced the expected diabetes cost by only 10 percent, we’d be getting a 450 percent return on the investment!

Again, keep in mind that these numbers are highly speculative. But with the health of the country so much at stake, we have to start the discussion.

Coming up: an inquiry into the possible federal tax source or sources. And, besides an appropriation, what policy mandates would be needed and how would they work on the school-district level?

Lance Tapley is a guest blogger for League of Fans and a freelance writer based in Maine.


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