Archive for November, 2009

Tear Down This Wall

November 18, 2009

By Laurie T. Schell, Executive Director

In the recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, President Reagan’s now famous speech exhorting Soviet President Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” replayed over and over again in print, radio and televised media. While the words echo a specific time and political context, the sentiment behind the words—of the need to tear down artificial barriers in order to effect lasting change– is one that arts education advocates would do well to embrace.

In spite of a sagging economy and plummeting state support for public education in California, there are clear signs of a shift in public perception about the value of arts education. The public, with parents in the forefront, has made it known that they want a quality education for their children, one that includes the visual and performing arts. We see evidence of this in California with the passage of the historic Arts and Music Block Grant funds of $105 – $109 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In the PSA announcements from the state’s largest teachers union, which decry the loss of arts programs in an attempt to gain more funding for education. In the stories from local advocates who have successfully lobbied to save their elementary music programs. The perception is out there— the public believes the arts are an essential part of a quality education.

Perception and reality are, unfortunately, two different things. The gains in public acceptance can be undone when an “either/or” argument is put forward, forcing choices or walls between PE and the arts, between community based arts organizations and schools, between Career Tech Ed courses and arts courses, and between in school and after school time. A complete education, which includes the arts, is about “both/and” not “either/or.” All of it is important.

In the arts education arena, we’ve always understood the value of a diverse constituency—parents, artists, teachers, business and community leaders. What we have yet to realize is an effective cross sector approach that subscribes to a vision that is larger than the sum of its parts. Embracing a common vision of excellence in education means placing students at the center, rather than institutions.

We need to continue to address the issue across many sectors—through national, state and local policy, local community advocacy, partnerships between schools and arts organizations, better pre-service education for generalist teachers, leadership development for school administrators, relentless exposure in the media, deeper relationships with the business community, to name a few. Everyone has a role. No one sits this one out.

Ultimately our strength comes from the creation a system of shared responsibility, or reciprocal accountability across sectors. Reciprocal accountability not only holds schools and teachers responsible for student learning, but also federal, state, and local educational agencies for ensuring that schools have adequate capacity and resources to provide strong instruction to all students, and parents, community and business members for giving voice and passion to the vision.

Tear down the artificial barriers that divide us and provide students the opportunities they need to be successful, caring and productive adults.

Stop the Music

November 4, 2009

By Ed Honowitz

The annual winter music concert fills the auditorium with parents and guests.  In the midst of the opening set, the band stops playing in the middle of a rousing musical piece.  Students and faculty walk on stage to relate the impacts of impending budget cuts that will strangle the progress of continuing the student achievement gains we have seen statewide.

This is the kind of community performance we need right now. Public education is in a state of crisis in California.  We are months away from the crushing reality of massive budget cuts after the one time Federal Stimulus money runs out.  And for the most part, parents and the public are largely unaware of the impacts of the impending cuts.

What is the role of artists, school leaders, students and teachers in taking a stand to sound the alarm about the massive damage we are inflicting on our public schools?

Artists have always played an active role in social movements and often are the canary in the coalmine, sounding the alarm before many are even aware of the issues.  School arts programs have a unique opportunity to communicate these budget realities and the political issues that have led to relegating children and public education to a low priority in California.

Between the February and June budget settlements in Sacramento, public education was cut at a rate faster than occurred in the great depression 80 years ago. The $12.5 billion reduction includes $7.5 billion in programmatic cuts and an additional $5 billion for the loss of cost-of-living adjustments for rising expenses like transportation, utilities and the like.  Overall, these cuts equal an astounding reduction of $2,100 per student which translate to tens of thousands of teacher, counselors and support staff lay offs.

Public schools have endured more than their fair share of cuts to help balance the state budget. Education should not have to disproportionately bear the burden of solving this budget crisis.  The impact of the education cuts already implemented will have long-lasting, detrimental effects on an entire generation of students, not to mention the state’s overall economy. Students didn’t create the budget problem, and fixing the problem shouldn’t come at the expense of their educational progress, success and future.

And, it is important to note that these cuts are being made to a system that is already woefully under funded. California ranked 47th in per-pupil funding in the nation, before these new cuts. California has far fewer teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses and administrators per student than the national average.

So, should the arts be used to sound an alarm? Should we stop the music and interrupt the concert?  Will Principals, Superintendents and School Boards support political statements in the middle of what should be a celebration of student success?

I believe we do a disservice to every student not to sound the alarm as we sound the drums, clarinets and violins.  We should be organizing art instructors and school leaders across California to take advantage of the creative potential of our staff and students.  Every gathering of parents and community members where we fail to make a statement is a missed opportunity to voice our outrage.  We cannot stand idly by and watch public education in California be dismantled without raising our voices; and that includes the voices of choirs, orchestras, artists and filmmakers.  It’s time for creative leadership to take to the front lines to save public education in our State.

About the author: Ed Honowitz is a School Board Member in Pasadena Unified School District and Treasurer for the California Alliance for Arts Education.