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Education Cuts Strike a Sour Note

by the National Education Association.

The school play, the marching band, the drama club, the student art show—they’re usually highlights of a student’s education. But as budgets constrict and opportunities decline, the importance of the curriculum is gaining new respect, including applications in priority schools.

“They’re starving programs out of existence,” said Tom McLaughlin, a delegate from Iowa at the 2011 NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago and the chair of the NEA Fine Arts Caucus, which promotes fine arts education in public schools. “We have music rooms where instead of there being kids and instruments, we have instruments locked in closets with dust all over them. It really is shameful what’s going on with arts education these days.”

When states tighten their budgets, education typically finds itself on the chopping block and, says McLaughlin, reductions in fine arts education funding are disproportionally heavy.

“Unless you have an arts-based curriculum, which can also integrate with the other classes, art programs get cut,” said Debra Turici, a 31-year classroom veteran who teaches arts education in the West Allegheny School District just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I’ve seen our arts program cut about 50 percent just in the last 11 years compared to 30 years ago.”

Because fine arts education typically is not considered core curriculum or included on high-stakes standardized tests mandated by federal requirements, music, art, theater and dance usually are the first to be left behind.

“The current public policy…is narrowing the curriculum and limiting access to the arts for the very children who rely on the public schools to enhance their creative being,” John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, has said on the issue. “Frankly it’s boring our students into disengagement and making our schools irreverent to the 21st century learning.”

And it’s at-risk students who rely most on fine arts education in public schools to make the link between the classroom and the real world.

Cleveland High School in Seattle, which received a federal School Improvement Grant, implemented a number of changes as part of its transformation model. One of those changes incorporated an inclusion model, integrating special education students—especially at-risk students who are under an individual education plan—into the general population.

Just one year into the new way of doing business, Cleveland, an intensive support site as part of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, is experiencing growing pains, but fine arts education—particularly music class and the marching band—has provided harmony.

“We know kids of color need to see themselves identified in the social fabric of America,” and curriculum like fine arts and social studies education help achieve those goals, said Olga Addae, president of the Seattle Education Association, which represents teachers and staff at Cleveland.

But when the Washington State legislature approved a 1.9 percent pay cut for teachers and other educators in May in order to close a $5.1 billion budget gap, fears that more cuts—including slashes to fine arts education—could be coming down the pike.

“We’re already down to the bare bones,” said Addae. “I’m afraid we might see more cuts to programs.”

As Washington is one the few states that has a statewide salary schedule, the deal also moves SEA and Seattle Public Schools to the table because compensation is a mandatory subject of bargaining.

“It’s left up to individual school districts to bargain the reduction of funding, which could translate to partial furlough days or program cuts,” said Addae, who remains optimistic that music and band classes at Cleveland will march on.

Back in Pennsylvania, Turici stresses policymakers need to remember how important fine arts education is when budgets need to be balanced.

“A lot of people don’t understand the importance of the arts—especially in the areas of special education…It keeps children more focused,” said Turici. “I tell my students, ‘I don’t care if you draw like Picasso or sculpt like Michelangelo, but I want you to know who they are.’”

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