By Edgar Walters

A four-year, $37 million state program to improve physical education at high-poverty middle schools failed to reduce obesity rates, according to a study by the University of Texas at Austin.

The program, Texas Fitness Now, primarily gave money to schools to buy sports and gym equipment from 2007 to 2011. One-quarter of the money was originally meant for nutrition, but a much smaller ratio — about 7 percent of the funds in 2009 and 2010 — went to schools for healthy eating initiatives, the study’s lead author said.

“The problem with this program is it was too open-ended what the schools did, and there wasn’t enough evaluation as things went along,” said Paul von Hippel, a researcher at the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “The program failed, we found, in its primary goal of reducing obesity, but it did increase fitness.”

A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, which administered the grants, said the program nonetheless led to some success.

“The Texas Legislature is to be commended for taking this direct approach in combating the issue of childhood obesity in our schools,” agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said in a statement. “While the results may not be what we all would have hoped for, many middle schools in some of the poorest areas of our state were able to acquire needed fitness equipment.”

A spokesman for Susan Combs, the former comptroller and a leading supporter of the fitness program, said Combs was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

While obesity rates did not decline, boys and girls in the program could complete more pushups and a faster shuttle run, a short-distance agility drill. Girls in the program also performed better on an abdominal strength drill, and had better flexibility. The researchers analyzed public information collected by the Fitnessgram, a physical fitness exam Texas students must take each year.

Texas Fitness Now was meant to improve students’ academic achievement, because, according to the program’s guidelines, “through increased fitness, students’ cognitive ability will improve.” But the researchers found no definitive conclusions about the funding’s effects on classroom performance.

On average, the grants had no effect on math or reading scores, but they may have improved scores among seventh- and eighth-graders who spent two to three years in participating schools.

 Texas Fitness Now was canceled in 2011 after widespread budget cuts.