Rodeo riders lose bid for physical education exemption as cheerleading advances

August 24, 2015

Madison Baute, a high school freshman from Agua Dulce, barrel racing on her horse, Dash. She had hoped to receive a physical education class exemption for the time she spends training.

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High school rodeo riders who stood to be exempted from state physical education requirements have lost that possibility, at least for the 2015 legislative year, according to the California state senator who authored a bill to allow the exemptions.

At the same time, the state Senate on Monday passed a bill that would make cheerleading a high school sport and thereby eligible for at least partial high school physical education credit. The measure, Assembly Bill 949, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, now heads to the governor’s desk.

Rodeo and cheerleading proponents took two different paths in the legislature, with cheerleading advocates earning the blessing of state physical education instructors by agreeing to work with the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the state governing body for high school sports, to meet the oversight, training and curriculum required of a school-sponsored interscholastic sport. Rodeo advocates went a more controversial route by seeking an exemption from physical education requirements without providing the structure and oversight of a school-sponsored sport.

“They could have gone the CIF route like cheerleading did,” said Betty Hennessy, president of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a membership organization for physical education teachers.

Barrel racers, bull riders and goat tying contestants, among other rodeo competitors, would have been allowed under Senate Bill 138 to have their local school boards exempt them from attending physical education classes. The bill was authored by Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, who said a group of high school riders approached her at the 2014 state rodeo finals in Bishop and asked her to press for an exemption in recognition of their athleticism and practice time.

The bill passed the Senate after a hearing that brought a dozen high school rodeo competitors to the Capitol wearing cowboy hats, Western yoke-style shirts, jeans and boots, but failed to pass the Assembly Education Committee. In a common legislative move, Fuller has used the bill number to introduce a different proposal. Senate Bill 138 now has been rewritten as a seismic safety bill, said Tom Collins, spokesman for Fuller.

The death of the bill is a win for physical educators, who viewed the measure as counter to their efforts to provide quality physical education classes that follow content standards adopted in 2005 by the State Board of Education. While the California Education Code requires public schools to provide at least 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days in elementary schools, and 400 minutes in middle and high schools, physical education teachers have seen widespread noncompliance and have watched as military instructors have been authorized, albeit in a limited fashion, to teach physical education.

“Rodeo is a community sport,” said Betty Hennessy, president of an association of physical education teachers. “It’s not governed by the school and instructors are not hired by the school or monitored by the school.”

“We are pleased with the outcome of this,” Hennessy said. “We support state standards for all students in all subject areas, not only physical education.”

According to Hennessy, the bill ran into trouble because it clashed with a California Education Code specification that allows districts to grant physical education exemptions to students involved in a “school-sponsored interscholastic athletic program,” such as a school sports team. Interscholastic sports teams must comply with requirements that include training coaches in CPR, first aid and gender equity laws. In addition, school teams typically are regulated by the California Interscholastic Federation.

But for rare exceptions, California high school rodeo is neither school-sponsored nor interscholastic, Hennessy said. “Rodeo is a community sport,” Hennessy said. “It’s not governed by the school and instructors are not hired by the school or monitored by the school.”

High school rodeo competitors are organized by the California High School Rodeo Association, a nonprofit membership group, into nine geographic districts. At events hosted by the California association or the National High School Rodeo Association, riders compete against each other, not other school teams. According to the national association, 595 California high school students are registered rodeo competitors.

An analysis of the bill prepared by the Assembly Education Committee raised a slew of concerns. Most vividly, the analysis described scenarios of potential school district liability: What if a student at a barn 10 miles from school is thrown from a horse during a riding lesson for which the student is receiving a physical education exemption? What if a student is hurt while riding a horse at home unsupervised while receiving a physical education exemption?

Oakdale High School in the Oakdale Joint Unified School District – the only high school to send a representative to the Senate hearing to testify that it recognizes rodeo as a school sport – sought to defuse liability concerns. In a statement of support for the bill, Oakdale High said that the California and National High School Rodeo Associations provide liability protection to competitors at sanctioned events. In addition, student members of the California High School Rodeo Association are covered by medical insurance once their annual membership dues are paid, Oakdale said.

Voicing its opposition, the California Teachers Association said in a statement that rodeo is “a supplementary extracurricular physical activity beyond the core standards-based physical education curriculum.”

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