By Rebecca Friedman
Washington, D.C.- - Mary Beth Burkholder has seen school arts programs work magic. While helping with a high school production, Burkholder met a young man who was having a hard time in high school. He tried out for the school play for the first time and got the lead. He gained so much confidence from performing that he decided that he would go to college, a dream he never had before being in the show.
“It helps non-traditional learners,” Burkholder said. “It’s an amazingly positive program for them.”
She is the president of Yellow Springs High School Theatre Arts Association. A parent group located in Ohio that helps produces the high school theatre productions.
Financial issues have made school districts turn to other avenues for funding the arts. The economy is not the only problem, as the No Child Left Behind Act had a hand in the lack of funding for the arts. The act puts such a heavy emphasis on testing in English and math that there is no time for the arts.
Advocacy organizations are trying to fix what No Child Left Behind has done by fighting for policy change. The arts are an important tool for students, as the arts allows them to get out from behind their desks. School districts are coming up with different ideas to ensure that if the arts cannot be taught in school, they can at least be taught after school.
Yellow Springs is a small town in Ohio that is dedicated to the arts, but for how long it can maintain that dedication is questionable.
“We are going through a tremendous financial crisis in Yellow Springs where we project to be in the red in 2012. We decided that the only immediate cuts that could be made were in supplemental funding. Technically the arts have not been cut,” Mario Basora, the Superintendent of Yellow Springs schools, said.
“Yellow Springs is a community that really supports the arts. What we did was decided to fund some of the art supplemental, for plays and musicals, out of gate receipts instead of the general fund, which is raised from tax revenue,” Basora said.
What Basora did was go to Burkholder and her colleagues and asked them to help fund the high school plays.
“We had a real sharp decline from the state,” Sean Creighton, president of the Board of Education said. “It will probably take partnerships like that to keep arts programs like that going.” Creighton thinks the partnership between the Yellow Springs High School Theatre Arts Association and the administration is a good one. It helps show that the administration is being proactive with a “shared future.”
For the record, Creighton says that, “the school never cut anything, if we had to pay for it, we would have.”
So for now, the arts programs have been spared and the students can still put on their shows. Burkholder, however, does not know how long the partnership can continue.
“The school cut the stipend for the fall play director and two other productions. We now have to pay those services out of the drama club fund,” which come from ticket sales Burkholder explained. “This was not such a problem this year, but more and more lately, these people aren’t willing to volunteer.” The volunteers that Burkholder is talking about are volunteers to make costumes and props, both of which cost money. If people are not willing to volunteer to make props are costumes for free, then the ticket money has to go to renting costume and props. The money cannot go to hiring people to direct or help pay for royalty fees.
“In the past, we just sort of have broken even every year. Whether we can continue to do that [pay for stipends out of ticket sales], we’re not sure,” Burkholder said.
Of course the economy has not helped schools in their attempts to maintain arts programs, but the issue of cutting back on the arts all started with the No Child Left Behind Act that was enacted Congress in 2001.
“We all know that there is so much emphasis on testing,” Lisa Jaret a spokesperson for the Washington State Arts Commission, which helped to put out an “Arts Education Resources Initiative” said, “even though the law [No Child Left Behind] stated the arts were part of the curriculum, the arts were not getting tested.”
The Center for Arts Education in New York is working toward the goal of making sure that the arts are taught in schools.
“At the middle school level they need to complete two courses of the arts and it is the same in high school, “ Doug Israel, director of research and policy at The Center for Arts Education said. “The classes need to be taught by a certified teacher.”
Even though schools should be teaching the arts, there is a “widespread lack of compliance. Legislation would make compliance and we advocate to bring policy change.” A policy change would ensure that arts programs would be mandated in schools across the country.
Right now there are three ways that Israel and his team track in schools how arts programs are doing. Israel collects data from schools about spending on arts teachers, supplies and field trips.
Results show the money for the equipment and field trips has been cut. Over the past three years there has been a 68 percent decline in the money for instruments, which equal out 7.2 million dollars. Then there is a decrease of 6.6 million dollars in field trip money. There has been an increase in arts personnel, up to $31 million dollars.
The arts are important to the students and advocacy organizations recognize that fact.
“There are a wide range of benefits. It gives them an opportunity for self expression, which is invaluable especially when you are stuck behind a desk all day,” Israel said. “It gives them something to look forward to every day,”
Students who have arts classes tend to do better on the SATs and it keeps them on track to graduate. There is a 60 percent graduation rate in New York, which Israel says is lower than before.
While having the arts being taught in schools may be difficult, schools are trying to find ways to ensure that the after school arts programs are still intact. Dr. George Entwistle is the superintendent of Belmont Public Schools, located in Belmont, Massachusetts. Belmont’s solution to their arts program problem was to charge an activity fee, which varies depending upon the activity.
“It’s basically a supplement in dollars or user fees,” Entwistle said.
There are pros and cons to charging activity fees, Entwistle explains. The pro is that the program will not be cut. The con is that now parents have to pay for their children to be a part of arts programs.
To help with the fees, the schools grant families waivers, about one out of ten families ask for waivers. However, with the economy being what it is, the number has risen.
“As the economy has gotten more difficult, people have gotten more strain and stress,” Entwistle said. “No one is happy about charging fees or paying fees.”
Even if the economy improved, Entwistle says that Belmont will not be doing away with the activity fee system any time soon.
“Once put into place, it’s highly unlikely it’s going to change. Will they ever go away? I seriously doubt it,” Entwistle said.
Although Entwistle says the activity fee method was to help students, Entwistle is concerned.
“Those of us in the schools worry about, is, when do we hit a tipping point with fees? When is a public school not public?” Entwistle is concerned that the public schools will become privatized in a way, if parents cannot afford to let their children do after school activities due to the fees. “Those are the kinds of things we worry about. We haven’t reached that tipping point yet.”
In Ohio, Burkholder sees first hand how the arts change students and how they can be used as an outlet for expression. Even though times are difficult right now, the arts are important.
“I personally think the arts are vital. It was a life changing experience for them.”