California School District to Spend $800k on Yoga Program

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The Encinitas Union School District in California has proposed spending $800,000 to continue a controversial yoga program.

Traditionally, yoga instruction in the school district was funded by grants, and those grants were not renewed this year. The district then decided to self-fund the program, which will approach $1 million. The plan has angered students and parents who say the money could be better spent on science facilities, physical education, and the arts.

According to Deborah Sullivan Brennan of The San Diego Union-Tribune, the proposal has sparked a petition that has generated more than 400 signatures on change.org. “The biggest concern is, it’s essentially stealing from my kids’ education,” said Gregory Robin, the author of the online petition and a parent of two students in the district.

The district has provided twice-a-week yoga instruction to all interested students for the past four years. The program has been funded with $4 million in grants from the Encinitas-based Sonima Foundation. As reported by Thomas Arnold of Seaside Courier, the initial grant amount was $533,720, which was increased to $700,000 to pay for extra expenses and another teacher. In July 2013, at the end of the yoga program’s first year, the school board accepted an additional $1.4 million from the foundation to expand the yoga program.

Since it began in 2012, the program has expanded from one instructor to its current staff of 11 full-time and four part-time teachers. The funding proposal for next year includes maintaining these positions.

The district’s Superintendent Tim Baird, who serves on the Sonima Foundation, submitted a fact sheet for concerned parents. The sheet shows a link between increased attendance, decreased behavior issues, and improved physical health and skills with strong health and wellness education. The district is arguing that its yoga program is at the core of its health and wellness education curriculum.

Interestingly, this is the second time within a few years that the district’s yoga program has aroused public backlash. Joe Tash of the website Encinitas Advocate writes that in 2013, some parents filed a lawsuit against the exercise program, accusing it of being unconstitutional because it was indoctrinating students with Hindu beliefs. In 2015, an appeals court upheld the case’s dismissal by a Superior Court and ruled that the programs in Encinitas were not religious.

This time, however, the criticism seems to be more intense because it is over public funds. “In the mission statement it supports those things, but when they don’t have the funds, they ask the parents to pay for science and arts,” Robin said. “They’re actively taking the stance that yoga is more important than the items in their mission statement, which aren’t funded.”

For his part, Superintendent Baird disputed the notion that the district prioritizes yoga more than core subjects such as math, science and language arts. “Generally, most parents, students, and staff have been very supportive of this program,” he said. “Frankly, to throw this program away after all these years of development… doesn’t make a lot of sense.”