Dumbing Down, the Dwindling Funding of the Arts

Recently, I received in the mail a request for a donation to a children’s softball league. The problem with this request is that it came from California and I don’t live anywhere near California. I can only guess that the mistake was a result of some person thinking that NC stood not for North Carolina but Northern California.

Along with the request for cash, the letter also offered a phone number for any items I might want to donate to for their upcoming super-duper auction, with all the proceeds going to fund the softball league. The darker part of my nature desperately wanted to spend the money on a long distance phone call and actually see if I could arrange a pick up for a couple of unused household items for their auction.This do-it-yourself community initiative to save a softball league prompted some serious thought about the dwindling funding for the arts and our national cultural identity and whether that identity is disappearing. Is that all it takes, a nationwide auction of bad gifts and piled up junk in our garages and attics, or better yet a full-scale, star-studded telethon, save music education in our public schools?

Everyone has heard the stories, those quickie reports on the local news, announcing the demise of yet another music or art program in our public schools. These reports have become so common and numerous, it fails to inspire the necessary outrage these reports deserve and instead prompts only a momentary stab of guilt and remorse for the loss of what was for some of us the best part of the day in our early education. So how bad can it be? Has the homecoming halftime show at the local high school been replaced by a Brittany Spears video or has our national anthem been out sourced to a Bhangra group from Bangalore via satellite?

Let me throw down some numbers. According to the National Education Association (NEA) website, the Durham School System in my home state did away with 112 mostly teaching or teaching assistant positions. California eliminated 3,000 experienced teachers and another 9,000 in support staff. You can guess that none of these positions came from the math or science departments, and considering the rah-rah mentality of the US, probably only a few came from the high profile sports like football or basketball. Now in Yonkers, New York the education system, in hot pursuit of better test scores, was more egalitarian in cutting 233 teaching positions in athletics, as well as the arts and music departments – that’s 233 teachers from one city. I’ve given just three examples of the changing face of arts education for one county, one state and one city, and that’s 12,345 teaching and support staff positions. To come up with a complete tally of the damage done to music education, and arts in general, across the country must be so staggering as to be considered downright obscene.

It doesn’t stop there. In Milwaukee, the Westside Academy might actually be forced to return the $25,000 grant from VH1’s Save the Music program because there’s no full-time music teacher for the piano lab. In the Ipswich Public Schools, plans have been made to cut the school’s fine arts department by eliminating the director of the program, the accompanist for the choral program, funding for all musical instruments and the instrumental program for all elementary public schools.

One Ipswich high school senior, Reeve Pierson, calculated the participation in his school and found that out of 629 students 445 participated in the music and art programs. Some communities are indeed fighting back with the auction idea and bake sales to save art, music and other programs in their schools, but exactly how many blueberry muffin sales does it take purchase a saxophone, I wonder.

Being on the slick side of this slippery slope doesn’t mean that Americans are ignorant of the benefits of music education. In a nationwide Gallup poll in 2003, 95% of Americans questioned felt that music education was essential to education and 80% responded that music education made a child smarter. Here’s some real proof:

“Students with coursework/experience in music performance and music appreciation scored higher on the SAT: students in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math, and students in music appreciation scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on the math, than did students with no arts participation”. — College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers. Princeton, NJ: The College Entrance Examination Board, 2001

“Secondary students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of all substances (alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs).” — Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Report. Reported in Houston Chronicle, January 1998

“A study of 237 second grade children used piano keyboard training and newly designed math software to demonstrate improvement in math skills. The group scored 27% higher on proportional math and fractions tests than children that used only the math software.“
Graziano, Amy, Matthew Peterson, and Gordon Shaw, “Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training.”Neurological Research 21 (March 1999).

“According to statistics compiled by the National Data Resource Center, students who can be classified as “disruptive” (based on factors such as frequent skipping of classes, times in trouble, in-school suspensions, disciplinary reasons given, arrests, and drop-outs) total 12.14 percent of the total school population. In contrast, only 8.08 percent of students involved in music classes meet the same criteria as “disruptive.” — Based on data from the NELS:88 (National Education Longitudinal Study), second follow-up, 1992

“A research team exploring the link between music and intelligence reported that music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills, the skills necessary for learning math and science.” — Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb, “Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning,” Neurological Research, Vol. 19, February 1997

Rather than debate the merits of tossing a ball against the skills learned through musical training, let’s agree that this discussion is dire. It comes down to making difficult choices. If “No Child Left Behind” or our ad nauseum, for-the-children mantra means anything and our local schools and communities are in trouble, relief to be found in state government at this point might be pointless. Consider the following:

  • *Thirty-six out of 57 states and territories in the US plan to slash funding for culture. Estimates suggest that funds will be reduced from $355 million to $274 million in the 2004 fiscal year according to Americans for the Arts.*
  • Florida governor, Jeb Bush, reduced his state’s arts funding from $28 million to $5.9 million.
  • Colorado’s arts budget shriveled to a mere $200,000.

The list goes on and on, state by state. Now federal funding for the arts did fair better, but not by much. In a recent Washington Post article detailing Bush’s latest budget proposal, the National Endowment for the Arts funding would remain unchanged, although the Challenge America program would lose 30% of its funding.

It’s not too difficult to imagine the path art and music programs will have to take in order to retain what little funding they have, where innovation and creativity will give way to the safe and boring. It’s also not difficult to imagine a time when public funding of the arts will disappear altogether. Our future cultural identity might just be reduced to computer-generated jingles for commercials and Saturday morning cartoons.

Let’s put aside the research and the numbers for a moment and consider the best reason for arts and music education in our public schools – the pure joy of it. There’s something utterly captivating in listening to the musical rendition of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” by a bunch of first-graders on kazoos and percussion instruments. What kind of society will we be without the squawky notes of “Greensleeves” emanating from an open window as a fourth-grader practices on a black, plastic recorder? What kind of cultural identity do we preserve and pass on without a music education? What happens to us if we become a country without a culture, without a voice, without a song?

I guess Air Force One should invest in a good sound system and a CD of Sousa marches, because a future president might be stepping of the plane into the adulation of crowds, not to the strains of “Hail to the Chief” played by a school orchestra but to a bunch of kids holding up multiplication table flashcards.

Author: TJ Nelson

TJ Nelson is a regular CD reviewer and editor at World Music Central. She is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena’s Shadow.

Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931.

Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.