District 214 to grant PE waivers for marching band

UPDATE March 12, 2015: IL bill would make PE requirement a local decision … Illinois State Rep Ron Sandack from Downers Grove, along with two other Republicans, has introduced a bill in Illinois’s General Assembly that would lift the state requirement that students complete four years of physical education in high school, making the PE requirement an entirely local decision, to be decided by each district’s board of education. [Read full article]

The Northwest Suburban High School District 214 board voted last week to grant physical education waivers to students enrolled in ROTC or competitive marching band, according to a report in the Daily Herald. The story was previewed in the online newspaper for Rolling Meadows High School as well.

High schools in District 214 with competitive marching bands include John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Rolling Meadows High School, Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, Wheeling High School, and Prospect High School in Mt. Prospect. The marching band at Buffalo Grove High School is not considered “competitive,” so students at Buffalo Grove would not be eligible for a PE waiver for marching band participation.

The changes were reported in the board’s Oct. 18 meeting agenda, here, as one of the 2013-14 curriculum changes and handbook revisions. A notice should be posted to the district’s website as soon as the official minutes are published and approved, which should occur at the next regular meeting of the board on Nov. 1.

This means, next year, students who participate in ROTC or marching band will be able to replace their gym period with a one-period study hall. Illinois school code allows this waiver of the state’s PE requirement for certain groups of students, such as athletes, marching band members, ROTC cadets, and so forth. Strictly speaking, there’s no requirement in Illinois law that the marching band be competitive in order for students to qualify for a waiver; that requirement was apparently tacked on by the district. Illinois law does stipulate that the marching band activity be “ongoing” and “for credit.”

A school board is authorized to excuse pupils enrolled in grades 11 and 12 from engaging in physical education courses if those pupils request to be excused for any of the following reasons: (1) for ongoing participation in an interscholastic athletic program; (2) to enroll in academic classes which are required for admission to an institution of higher learning, provided that failure to take such classes will result in the pupil being denied admission to the institution of his or her choice; or (3) to enroll in academic classes which are required for graduation from high school, provided that failure to take such classes will result in the pupil being unable to graduate. A school board may also excuse pupils in grades 9 through 12 enrolled in a marching band program for credit from engaging in physical education courses if those pupils request to be excused for ongoing participation in such marching band program. … A school board may also excuse pupils in grades 9 through 12 enrolled in a Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) program sponsored by the school district from engaging in physical education courses.

The above is from 105 ILCS 5/27-6, available here. A full report for the Illinois State Board of Education, here, released in 2008, says about 83 percent of Illinois school districts that have high schools offer PE waivers to their students for one of the above reasons. Only 43 percent of the districts granted PE waivers for marching band, while about 59 percent of them granted waivers to 11th and 12th graders participating in interscholastic athletics.

This law could be better written

We agree that marching band and ROTC are physically demanding activities and students should be excused from PE while these other activities are in progress. The reality, however, is that marching bands spend about as much time sitting down as they do out on the field. The music is probably more important to competition scores than the marching is, so competitive marching bands, as stipulated in District 214’s new policy, will probably not get physical activity every day. This definitely varies by band, with some organizations getting much more physical activity than others, and even from year to year within the same band, depending on the nature of the show. Inside work, sitting in chairs, however, must be considered at least equally important as outside work moving around.

This brings me to my point: The goal of gym class is physical activity. Kids are becoming obese these days in increasing numbers, and sitting in a study hall isn’t going to help that problem. Furthermore, an extra 45 minutes of study time each day during marching band season isn’t going to lead to too much academic advancement, if any at all. My sincere advice to the marching band students at five of the district’s six high schools is not to seek a PE waiver. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you must do it.

The spirit of the PE waiver law is that some kids need additional study time: those who absolutely need a specific class, those who work out or practice every day after school and then compete on Friday nights or even more times during the week, depending on the sport, and so on. Although I know how physically demanding marching practice is, the competition itself requires a performance of less than 10 minutes, plus associated warm-ups and such. It’s hardly a day on the gridiron or an hour in the weight room.

Now, having to get to those activities can sometimes involve interstate travel, which tires out kids and parents alike. But if kids are just over-scheduled and have trouble finding time to study, that’s a completely different problem that needs to be addressed on its own merit, not by substituting a PE waiver for real time management training.

Plus, we’re starting down a slippery slope when it comes to extracurricular activities that provide even less physical activity than marching band. Where do we draw the line? For example, does the French Club sponsor a 5K run as a fundraiser? That wouldn’t count, of course, under Illinois law, but District 214 has already manipulated the exact law a little, first by taking out “ongoing” and then by adding “competitive.” This falls under the school district’s “discretion” in Illinois law, and the district is, of course, free to use its discretion in granting the waivers. They are not “required” by the law, just allowed.

However, we believe that equal protection requires Buffalo Grove’s marching band students to be granted waivers exactly like marching band students at Hersey. Just because one band’s director sees a value in competition and the other one’s doesn’t does not justify treating the students in those two bands differently under the Illinois school code.

Competition has a place in the fine arts, but many great musicians and many great educators put not one shred of faith in competing “against” other schools in the fine arts. For example, the Illinois Music Educators Association currently sanctions a grand total of zero activities in which one school competes against another. District 214 has overstepped its bounds by putting a higher value on “competition” with this policy than it puts on a sound education in the fine arts and on its teachers’ autonomy on the podium.

Finally, marching bands that are considered “extracurricular” rather than “co-curricular” don’t technically qualify as “for credit” under Illinois law. In this case, we believe the law needs a touching up. Participating in an “extracurricular” marching band places the same physical demands on students as participating in a “co-curricular” marching band would and thus makes granting a PE waiver just as proper. That fact alone doesn’t give school districts the right to just do what they want, though: the law should be reviewed before we go around tinkering with the details on our own.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.