Senate moves to fight childhood obesity

ATLANTA - The way Georgia lawmakers see it, requiring school officials to post on the Internet whether their students are physically fit could help curb an alarming epidemic of childhood obesity.

The Senate passed a bill Friday that would require schools to measure each student's height and weight twice a year. An aggregate "body mass index" for the student body then would be posted online, so parents could compare schools' health statistics as they already do test scores.

"We're going to create an environment where school administrators have conversations about the health status of their students," said Sen. Joseph Carter, R-Tifton, the measure's chief sponsor.

Carter said childhood obesity across the nation has tripled during the last 20 years.

One of three kids in Georgia is either obese or at risk of developing obesity, he said.

Carter first tried to address the issue two years ago with legislation that would have mandated a minimum period of time schools had to dedicate to physical education.

The bill cleared the Senate but failed to make it through the House after running into strong opposition from educators.

"What we heard from schools is, 'We don't want you making us do these things,'" Carter said. "They're right."

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, vice chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, called Carter's bill a "baby step" toward addressing childhood obesity by a state that has done embarrassingly little about the problem.

"We are a leader in strokes, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and we're doing nothing," she said.

But Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, said state government has no business wading into an issue that should be handled at home.

"It's a great idea for young people to be fit," he said. "(But) is it the mandate of government to tell the local schools how to do it?

"What role do parents have? ... We don't need parents because we have a government."

But Carter argued that the state has just as much interest in promoting students' physical fitness as in encouraging them to become good drivers, as schools across Georgia do by providing driver's education classes.

Under Carter's bill, any school system that fails to conduct the required testing and submit the results to the state Department of Education would be designated as an "unhealthy school zone."

The legislation also requires school districts to provide at least "minimum instruction" in physical education but leaves it up the Georgia Board of Education to determine what systems must do to comply with that standard.