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Finer things

Shrinking budgets deepen inequality in arts education

Oklahomans know every student needs access to quality public education. Unfortunately, our state has struggled to uphold this commitment. While all areas of public education have suffered from slashed funding over the past decade, budget cuts have hit fine arts education especially hard.

In the 2017-2018 school year, Oklahoma had 1,110 fewer art and music classes than four years prior, leaving 28 percent of Oklahoma public school students without access to fine arts classes. Statewide underfunding of arts education impacts all Oklahoma schoolchildren, and these cuts especially hurt low-income and rural students.

Fine arts education, which primarily includes music and visual art—but also drama, dance, and debate—is important for preparing all students for college and careers. The fine arts help develop critical thinking, spatial-temporal reasoning, tolerance, and cultural awareness. Fine arts may also reduce dropout rates for low-income students and students of color who face greater risk of not graduating. Access to fine arts education is a key part of a well-rounded education, but Oklahoma is not adequately meeting this standard.

Within districts, poverty levels often determine whether or not a student gets a fine arts education. High-income schools are more likely to offer band, orchestra, and choir programs than schools with less wealthy families. The same is true for the visual arts.

In the wake of budget cuts, some schools have relied on their parent-teacher associations (PTA), partnerships with local art organizations, philanthropy, and grants to salvage fine arts instruction.  For this reason, one elementary school may have two full-time fine arts teachers, while a school across the district may have none.

PTAs in high-income areas sometimes rescue fine arts classes through substantial fundraising efforts. For example, when Tulsa Public School’s comparatively wealthy Council Oak Elementary lost its art class, the PTA raised the funds necessary to hire a part-time art teacher. Schools in low-income urban areas can sometimes maintain art programs through private philanthropy and community art organizations. While these efforts fill a hole in fine arts education, they do not usually provide full-time certified arts instruction, and they require constant fundraising, which can be unpredictable and time consuming.

With fewer nearby arts organizations, rural schools have even more difficulty salvaging the fine arts or providing teachers with arts training. Schools in southeastern Oklahoma, the poorest region of the state, have the lowest average art offerings whereas Tulsa and OKC metro areas have the highest. On average, rural high schools provide fewer music courses as well.

Two organizations, the Oklahoma Arts Council and the Oklahoma Arts Institute, are crucial to providing professional development opportunities for teachers, supplemental arts education for students, and teaching artist residency programs. These efforts have become harder to maintain as state funding for the Oklahoma Arts Institute was slashed by about 55 percent over the past decade. The Oklahoma Arts Council has been similarly weakened.

Today in Oklahoma, students do not have equal access to fine arts instruction. While highly motivated school leaders, teachers, parents, and community members rush to fill the void, these efforts leave some schools with robust fine arts programs and others with none at all. While the teacher walkout in the spring resulted in a much-needed teacher pay raise, it did little to increase general education funding that had been cut 28 percent over the past decade. As the 2019 legislative session approaches, lawmakers should heed the call to fund what’s needed to bring back the arts and other essential programs to our schools.

Rebecca Fine is an education policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute.