Using Litigation to Increase PE Policy Compliance in California: Impact and Unintended Consequences

Project Summary

The project team researched the impact of a lawsuit against 37 non-physical education (PE) compliant school districts in California on PE quality and quantity, and potential resulting unintended consequences. The team conducted a qualitative study to assess districts’ and schools' perceptions of the lawsuit. They also quantified the impact of PE litigation on cardiovascular fitness among a diverse group of students.

Research Question(s)

  • How do districts and schools believe the California PE lawsuit has affected support and infrastructure for PE? Has the lawsuit resulted in any unintended consequences in these districts and schools?
  • What have been the barriers to/facilitators of implementing the lawsuits settlement requirements?
  • How does the potential threat of litigation affect PE support and infrastructure, as well as lead to potential unintended consequences, in districts not included in the lawsuit?
  • Did students at schools named in the lawsuits show greater improvements in cardiovascular fitness over time than control schools?


  • Inform strategies to improve compliance with physical education policies, as well as improve student health.


The primary finding of the research project is that accountability for physical education (PE) matters. Interviewees reported that PE minutes increased in schools that were parties to the lawsuit, primarily due to lawsuit settlement requirements that mandated PE minute tracking and reporting, which increased accountability for PE.

For more information read the Policy Brief and Synopsis of Results.

PE litigation led to a 1-percentage-point increase in the proportion of fifth-grade students meeting cardio–respiratory fitness standards (95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.03%, 2.0%). Effects were especially pronounced for female (1.3-percentage-point increase; 95% CI = 0.1%, 2.5%), African American (3.4-percentage-point increase; 95% CI = 0.5%, 6.2%), and low-income (2.8-percentage-point increase; 95% CI = 0.5%, 6.0%) students.


Health: Compliance with minimum PE standards measured via PE quality and quantity; student aerobic capacity assessed during a timed mile run, the Pacer Test (also known as the Beep Test), or a walk test.

Other: Changes in attitudes and behaviors of school and district personnel


Qualitative interviews with matched control school districts utilizing a combination of the constant comparative method (to generate new grounded theories from the data) and a thematic analysis approach to segment, categorize, and link the data based on predetermined theories established using PE interview data from previous studies on policy compliance.

The team used an interrupted time series design to look at changes in aerobic capacity between students in districts that were parties to the lawsuit and students in control districts. Secondary analyses included models where the predictor is being named in a lawsuit, rather than settling the lawsuit, to shed light on the stage at which litigation begins to have an impact.

Children running in PE class
Grant status
Principal investigators
Kristine Madsen, MD, MPH
Hannah Thompson, PhD, MPH
Start date
Award amount
30 months

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