Experiencing Cuts to Arts Education

[Six days after writing this piece about cuts in my school district, the New York Times reported on the use of digital technology there: “even as technology spending has grown, the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music, art and physical education.”]

Robert Morrison wrote on the School Band & Orchestra blog “I am happy to say that the reported nationwide decline in access to music and arts education in our schools is a myth.” It wasn’t until the third or fourth reading that I realized that Morrison’s word choice, “access,” is very careful.  He may be right in saying that “access” has not declined but there is, in my experience, a very real decline in the quantity and quality of arts education due to cuts to state and local budgets.  Morrison cites data, complete with bar graphs and line diagrams, to back up his claim that “music and visual arts [are] nearly universally available.” The data tells a story: whole programs have not been cut significantly.  My experience tells a different story, a story that is qualitative rather than quantitative with an n=1.

My daughter completed her elementary school education last spring.  She is a talented and creative girl who takes pride in the work she does.  At the end of the year, she brought home the portfolio from her year-long class in art and said, with a tear in her eye, “I’m sorry nothing is finished mom, but we only have art once a week and there wasn’t time. I’m really disappointed.”  Prior to the cuts that took place 2009-2010, the art class met twice each week. The teacher was now serving two schools, however, which means that not only did my daughter receive less art instruction, one art teacher had been laid off or not hired.  In previous years, my daughter brought home a portfolio of projects at the end of each year of which she (and I) was proud.

She started middle school, excited to have the opportunity to learn to play the flute in her band class.  My son had gone through the same program, learning French horn along with other brass players.  My daughter’s experience will be very different.  Instead of a class of woodwinds and a class of brass, and a class of percussion, the band teacher has a 38-student mix of all instruments combined. This cuts instrumental instruction, de facto, by 2/3 while still maintaining the appearance, statistically, of a full band program.  The data will show that all students have access to band and instrumental instruction – that’s great.  The data won’t show that the quality of the music education experience has declined.  [I note that these cuts are not just affecting the arts.  When my son went to the same school, academic classes were capped at 32 and most had 30 students.  My daughter’s English, Math, Science and Social Studies classes have 36 to 38 students each.]

The data that Morrison presents tells another story, one he touches on at the end of his piece: a story about the success of arts advocacy.  If Morrison’s data is accurate – and I have no reason to doubt it – then arts advocates have been extraordinarily successful at helping schools maintain arts education programs, even if the education in those programs is not as deep as in the past.  My fear is that because the programs still exist, albeit in a decimated state, restoration of the strength of programs like those in my public school system will not be a priority should the budget outlook reverse.  We will have to keep telling our stories – both quantitatively and qualitatively.

(Here’s a little something my daughter sketched at home:)

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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