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Cuts in Arts Programs Leave Sour Note in Schools


"Art is essential for a student's complete education," says Susan Pezanoski-Browne, an art teacher at La Escuela Fratney elementary school in Milwaukee. In June, she participated in a rally at the State Capitol, calling for fair and adequate funding of public education.


By Ryan Hurley
WEAC PR/Comm summer intern

"I am an endangered species," said Jeff Johnson, who teaches at Westside Academy in Milwaukee. "I am an art teacher."

Johnson strongly believes that the importance of the arts in a child's education is being downplayed by the school district and "when it comes down to it, the children need to be put first."

Since 1993, when legislators imposed revenue caps on public schools, school districts have been forced to make some hard decisions about ways they can cut back spending. Music and art programs were usually among the first to receive severe blows.

More than 10 years later, the slashing of music and art programs is continuing in dramatic fashion. In addition to revenue controls, the recent Elementary and Secondary Education Act (often referred to as the No Child Left Behind law) imposed by the Bush administration has put music and art programs in rough shape and left with a dim future. In hopes of reducing the budget, school districts throughout the state are taking drastic measures by cutting out pieces of art and music programs and in some cases eliminating teaching positions completely.

"These are trying times for all education, especially arts. The No Child Left Behind Act has put a restriction on music programs' ability to thrive," said Nancy Rasmussen, president of Wisconsin Music Educators Association.

Because music and the arts aren't government-tested like reading, writing and math, school districts are pressured to cut them first.

Reductions in arts cost schools money

Studies show that schools that cut arts programs end up within the next three years spending more money on education, and their test scores in other areas actually go down, said Martin Rayala, art, media and design consultant for the Department of Public Instruction.

"Within two to three years, every school that cut arts showed a decrease in morale and attendance and an increase in vandalism and disruptions, and within three years most of them had to add extensive disciplinary staff to account for the problems that were created by not providing the full range of experiences that human beings need," Rayala said. These staff additions are costing the school more than keeping the arts programs and are hurting testing scores in the process, he said.

"There are seven ways to communicate information, and words and numbers are only two of them," said Rayala. The other five are movement, sounds, images, objects, and spaces, all of which are provided through the arts. "It is like people in the South who come to Wisconsin and drive on icy roads; they tend to oversteer in one direction and skid," he said. "Schools in Wisconsin are doing the same thing by pushing resources in one direction when new tests come out, then they yank the wheel in the other direction, putting the school in a skid instead of staying the steady course."

Over the next two years, Milwaukee Public Schools expect to lose 38 art teachers and 23 music teachers.

The Milwaukee School Board trimmed $1.3 million from a proposed $3.5 million for the purchase of new music textbooks and plans to send the savings to schools for general use.

Westside Academy will most likely have to return a $25,000 grant for its music program donated by VH1's Save the Music program that they used to purchase a piano lab, because the school no longer employs a full-time music teacher, Johnson said.

Save our Schools

Mike Trokan, a parent of two children in the Milwaukee School District, is a member of an organization formed last spring called Save Our Schools. This organization's goal is to continue the fight against public school budget cuts and rally more people to speak out, Trokan said. "We want to make sure that people stay enthusiastic and motivated about this problem year-round," he said. "Persistence is the only way we are going to make a difference."

Elm Creative Arts Elementary School in Milwaukee has lost three art specialist teachers in the last few years, and the remaining four are in jeopardy. Preparing to deal with the expected $24 million shortfall in the Milwaukee Public Schools' budget, Principal Mark Tenorio was forced to write music, drama, dance and art teachers out of the budget. "It's horrible," Tenorio told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's like saying 'We're going to have a hospital specializing in heart surgery, but we're going to have to get rid of the heart surgeon.' It doesn't make any sense."

Madison art teachers are going to have to add another class to their already very busy schedules next year, according to a proposal from Superintendent Art Rainwater. Three years ago, Madison art teachers went from 18 classes twice a week to 21 because of cuts in the budget, and next year they will be teaching 22 classes twice a week. This year, the Madison School Board also eliminated the position of fine arts coordinator, which previously was reduced from full time to part time.

Smaller school districts' art and music programs have also been affected by budget cuts. For example:

  • South Shore School District reduced the art teacher's hours by 20%.
  • Glidden School District reduced hours for its music teacher.
  • Park Falls School District will cut $15,000 from the music program.
  • Grafton School District lost its 5th grade band teacher.

According to a nationwide survey taken in 2003 by the Gallup organization, 95% of Americans believe that music is a key component in a child's well-rounded education. Eighty percent of respondents agreed that music makes the participants smarter; 78% believe that learning a musical instrument helps students perform better in other subjects areas; and 88% believe participation in music helps teach children discipline.

The evidence found by the College Entrance Examination Board showed students in an arts appreciation class scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math than students with no arts participation.

Improving overall performance

Researchers Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin, and Gordon Shaw of the University of California-Irvine, found that music lessons have been shown to improve a child's performance in school. After eight months of lessons, children showed a 46% boost in their spatial IQ, which is crucial for higher brain function learning in complex mathematics, science and engineering.

Arts aren't only very important to a student's education, but they have a positive effect on the economy in Wisconsin. The arts are a job generator and have an economic impact of more than $289 million annually in Wisconsin while costing the state less than $5 million per biennium, according to the Wisconsin Assembly for Local Arts.

Sharon Ebel is an art teacher who was recently laid off from Henry David Thoreau Elementary School in Milwaukee. The position was cut, even though state law requires a full-time art teacher, and now classroom teachers are expected to pick up the slack and incorporate art into their curriculums.

"Most people don't understand what it takes to teach art effectively," said Ebel, who teaches the cultures behind the art and how to use creative and critical thinking skills. "This is really going to be devastating for the children."

"Art is essential for a student's complete education," said Susan Pezanoski-Browne, an art teacher at La Escuela Fratney elementary school in Milwaukee.

Pezanoski-Browne, along with Johnson, Ebel and more than 80 other art teachers in the district are in the process of forming an awareness group concerned with getting out the message of the importance of art education. Even though close to one-third of the art teachers in the Milwaukee public school district have been laid off, the organization is putting the concerns of their job security second.

"Our focus is on the students and their right to have quality art instruction," Browne said.

Posted June 25, 2004

At the Capitol News Archives