Using litigation to increase PE policy compliance in California: Impact and unintended consequences

The research team is researching the impact of a recent lawsuit against 37 non-PE compliant school districts in California on PE quality and quantity, and potential resulting unintended consequences. The researchers are conducting a qualitative study to assess districts’ and schools' perceptions of the lawsuit. They are also quantifying the impact of PE litigation on cardiovascular fitness among a diverse group of elementary students across California. The findings should inform future strategies to improve compliance with PE laws and 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.

Longitudinal design, with the lawsuits (the predictor), staggered in time (akin to a step-wedge design, without randomization) to look at changes in aerobic capacity between students in districts that were parties to one of three PE lawsuits and students in control districts (both in California and Texas). Secondary analyses will include 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

Stay Connected