Rich Copley: Cutting art and music is cheating our students

rcopley@herald-leader.comFebruary 23, 2014 

  • Meeting

    The next meeting of the Fayette County Board of Education is 6 p.m. Feb. 24 in the Norsworthy Auditorium of the administration building, 701 E. Main St. For more information, call Lynn Kennedy Green, (859) 381-4102, or email lynn.kennedygreen@fayette.kyschools.us.

My Tuesday started at the LexArts Fund for the Arts campaign kickoff, where organizers emphasized the importance of arts education. The event included a performance by the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras' MusicWorks program and a steady stream of community leaders extolling the virtues of arts education.

"Many studies have shown that exposure to the arts and facilitating artistic expression help our children achieve more in school and develop skills like cooperation, decision making and perseverance, all of which are so critical to their success as adult workers in a knowledge-based economy," said campaign chairwoman L. Tracee Whitley, chief operating officer of Bingham McCutchen LLP, the global law firm that recently moved its operations center to Lexington.

"The kids who are exposed to the arts at an early age inevitably grow up to become more valuable, thoughtful and often more highly educated workers and citizens. ... Fundamentally, promotion of the arts stimulates a virtuous cycle within the life of our city."

Later that night, I found myself communicating with several friends who were distressed that Fayette County school officials, entrusted with major decisions in the education of most of our children, were targeting band and orchestra programs to cut $20 million from the 2014-15 budget.

Lowlights of a Tuesday afternoon board meeting to address possible cuts included a board member leaving out of frustration with Superintendent Tom Shelton, and Shelton, at best account, telling revered Lafayette High School band director Charles Smith that it was inappropriate for him to attend the public meeting.

Seriously? Does Shelton really want to pick a fight with the Lafayette band? Does he really think a highly respected educator trying to protect his program and his students is inappropriate?

That's the move of someone defending the indefensible. When you consider the mountains of evidence about the benefits of arts education, cutting arts programs is indefensible.

"Decades of research show strong and consistent links between high-quality arts education and a wide range of impressive educational outcomes," said a 2011 report from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

In a reflection of the issue at hand, it said, "At the same time, due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high-stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend. Just when they need it most, the classroom tasks and tools that could best reach and inspire these students —— art, music, movement and performing —— are less available to them."

Shelton told the Herald-Leader, "The district will continue to have band and orchestra in every elementary, middle and high school. It will continue to be funded as a districtwide program." He gave additional endorsements in a letter to band and orchestra directors.

How much band and orchestra and other programs such as foreign language and special education will be affected remains to be seen. But it is easy to see why students, parents and teachers are up in arms over even the suggestion that music programs might be threatened. It' the oldest move in the school budget-cutting playbook.

I have read plenty of reports like that of the President's Committee about the benefits of arts education, and in the past few years, I have witnessed them firsthand as the parent of two orchestra students. It's not a coincidence that valedictorians seem to regularly come out of orchestras or that music programs have a concentration of top students in general.

But the arts don't just build academic success. Arts education is a key to teaching students expression, to channeling creativity and to building collaborative community.

I'm hard-pressed to think of another elective or extracurricular activity with that kind of track record.

So why do the arts always end up on the short list for cuts?

A 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report posited that arts are often not viewed as compatible with the testing focus that many schools have taken and, erroneously, are seen as strictly expressive and not cognitive fields.

Those are simplistic, ill-informed views that have no place in discussions by serious educators. Still, they prevail, and many school systems, including plenty in Kentucky, have radically reduced or eliminated arts education.

At the beginning of this month, we were at Kentucky's high school All-State Orchestra concerts in Louisville. Guest conductor Larry Livingston, who has led some of the best orchestras in the country, sang the praises of the students with whom he had been working for three days. He said it was clear that many of them — a majority from Fayette and Jefferson county schools — had received excellent training.

Another thing that's clear to an orchestra parent is that the teachers running the programs are stretched thin, organizing concerts, competitions and conferences in addition to grading classroom work for students. These are educators who need the added help and pay that appear to be in play as Fayette schools look to address this surprise $20 million budget shortfall (stop and contemplate those last five words).

Yes, with that much to cut, many areas will take a hit.

But arts and music always take a hit, or they never get the funding they need in the first place. As school officials contemplate how to handle this, we as parents have to implore them and Shelton to be more open-minded and creative in economizing than going into default mode.

Default mode is stupid, and it's getting really old.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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