Report: Arts classes at elementary schools reduced

April 2, 2012 - 5:05 PM

MIAMI (AP) — Elementary schools without drama classes. High schools with large numbers of poor students that do not offer music.

Those are two of the bleaker pictures that emerged Monday from a report by the U.S. Department of Education on the state of arts education.

Fewer public elementary schools are offering visual arts, dance and drama classes than a decade ago, a decline many attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading. The percentage of elementary schools with a visual arts class declined from 87 to 83 percent. In drama, the drop was larger: From 20 percent to 4 percent in the 2009-10 school year.

Music at the elementary and secondary school levels remained steady, though there were declines at the nation's poorest schools.

Speaking at a Washington, D.C. school, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday that the report painted a mixed picture: On the one hand, there has not been a dramatic narrowing of the arts curriculum. Music and visual arts classes are still widely offered, and there hasn't been a decline in dance or drama offerings at the middle and high school level.

On the other hand, music and arts classes are still out of reach for many. While 100 percent of high schools where 76 percent or more students qualify for free or reduced lunch — a key indicator of poverty — had a music class in the 1999-2000 school year, only 81 percent did a decade later.

"It is deeply troubling that all students do not have access to arts education today," Duncan said in his remarks.

The figures offer the first long-term perspective on how arts education has changed in the United States, and were not surprising given the large number of schools that cut electives during the recession and its aftermath.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said cuts are likely to continue into the next two years because education funding has been slow to pick back up.

"We haven't hit bottom yet," he said.

Arts classes are often among the first to be slashed. That's an experience Anthony Tabacco, a music teacher in Broward County, the nation's sixth largest school district knows well. He now teaches music part-time at the school where he used to be a full-time employee. Because he has less time with students in class and after school, holiday and spring concerts have been canceled.

Marla Armstrong, arts curriculum specialist for the district, said cuts to the arts were made in part because the district needed to compensate for unfunded mandates, such as Florida's class size law.

"I don't think it was a decision anyone wanted to make," she said.

Eighty-eight percent of the students at Miramar Elementary School, where Tabacco teaches, qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"They're not progressing as much as they should have been," he said.

It's those students that Duncan and others said are most affected by cuts; their families may not be able to afford a private art or music class after school. And for some students, particularly those who are low achieving, an arts class could be what pushes them to continue going to school.

"You hear students say, 'I found out who I was because I was able to explore my identity in the visual arts,'" said Bob Sabol, president of the National Art Education Association. "It validates who they are as individuals."