Legislation Could be a Blow to Gymnastics, Martial Arts

Some argue the bill protects kids, others believe it's all about money

There’s something about a gym and a day care that just looks different. Maybe it’s that they’re two totally separate things.

But not if you’re looking at them through the eyes of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, an agency that believes the two function so similarly that they should fall under the same regulations and requirements.

A Texas Senate bill under consideration would redefine a day care facility to mean any place where a student or athlete trains for more than two hours a day, three times a week.

Licensing as day cares would subject many of the states’ fine gymnastics, dance, martial arts and cheer facilities to an array of new regulations.

Obviously carrying around swords and teaching children to round-house kick would not pass in a day care facility either.

"We literally could not exist," said Charles Dudley, Texas representative for the National Association of Professional Martial Artists,  of youth martial arts programs.

Although requiring more training and background checks, and removing "dangerous" equipment ostensibly protects kids, Dudley disagrees that safety is the only motive. He asserts that day cares are lobbying to pass the bill because fewer skills-training operations would force more kids into their facilities and thus increase their profits.

The Texas Licensed Child Care Association’s Web site lists two of its goals for 2009 as restricting class sizes in public school Pre-K programs to force the state to outsource and fund Pre-K programs of licensed child-care providers, as well as pass the currently debated legislation of bringing more skills-training and summer camp facilities under their regulations.

Texas currently produces more Olympic athletes than any other state in the union, and children often spend 30 to 40 hours a week training, even home schooling to have enough time. Injuries occur, but are par for the course of such intense training.

"In the Senate hearing last Tuesday, it was testified that 35 children have died in the state of Texas in licensed childcare facilities," Dudley said. "But in gymnastics, we didn’t lose a single one."

At stake in the controversy are the kids who grow up dreaming about athletic stardom, of whom there are many in Texas.

Yezgeni Marchenko, co-owner of WOGA (World Olympics Gymnastic Academy), recoiled from the "day care" label. She notes that her facility was able to prepare two Olympic champions, and sees only devastation to gymnastics if the bill passes.

"We are not, and we will never be child care, and if this happens this would be the end of this sport. We are concerned about the children's safety, but we are not child care," she said.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who voted for the bill, said she only wanted to protect children from abuse, neglect and sexual predators, not disrupt athletic or recreational opportunities for youth.

"Additionally, this legislation re-instates and expands exemptions for important neighborhood services, after-school programs, sports training and recreational activities that were never envisioned for state day care regulation," she said. "These exemptions were nullified last year when the Office of Attorney General ruled that the Department of Family and Protective Services, which regulates day care, may not create license exemptions without legislative authority. Please be assured that I will not pass this bill unless it provides a clear exemption for gymnastics."

Nullifying rules the agency created without legislative backing should have happened, but giving legislative backing to the possibly detrimental new rules they want to pass could hurt more than help Texas kids.

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