School leaders across North Carolina say they need more money to fulfill an unfunded mandate from the legislature. So to exert political leverage on lawmakers, they’re citing the dreadful cuts they’ll have to make without a new infusion of cash.
They could threaten to eliminate football and basketball, hold split sessions or eliminate 12th grade. Such distasteful options would be almost certain to increase constituent pressure back home.
But when school leaders needed to scare legislators, they surprisingly put school arts programs on their list.
Here’s the background.
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Last year, the legislature added a budget provision requiring smaller class sizes in school year 2017-18 but did not fund the extra teachers and classrooms such a change necessitates. Without new money, schools would have to cut somewhere else.
Pushback came earlier this month. In a story that ran in The News & Observer under the headline “N.C. schools might cut arts, PE to meet new class size limits,” education leaders listed arts education as a likely cut.
Over the past 40 years, that threat would have elicited a Clint Eastwood-like response from conservative legislators: “Go ahead, make my day.” Part of the conservative education sales pitch, for generations, has been to teach the basics, and many a conservative legislator said arts are “not basic.”
It’s always been a ludicrous assertion, of course, just as ignorant as claims that science isn’t a basic. On that agenda, only reading, writing and math are basics.
When we expose children to the arts, we open their eyes to creativity, critical thinking and imagining a world outside of their hometown bubble.
Making that kind of an argument was usually fruitless in a legislature that sees education as serving one purpose, preparing the next generation to go to work. They ask: Artists and musicians are poorly paid, if they can find jobs at all, so why would we want to teach them to draw?
(Reminds me of the moronic senator who asked in a 1985 education committee meeting, “Why do mills kids gotta learn how to talk French.” My entry for the most ignorant thing ever said at 16 W. Jones St.)
As the school threat to cut the arts demonstrates, some time recently, the world changed and people began seeing the career opportunities opened by arts instruction.
Steve Jobs noted that the products of his company, the world’s largest by some calculations, were inspired in large part by what he learned in a single design class at Reed College.
Then came the huge video-gaming industry and its more recent iterations, and suddenly people are beginning to see the commercial value of art and music, not just for Pablo Picasso and The Beatles, but for a great many workers. Every bottle of craft beer produced in North Carolina’s breweries, for example, bears an artfully crafted label too, one created by an artist.
Parents love that their children can explore their artistic talents, and they aren’t likely to cotton to removal of arts programs from schools. Hence, that kind of threat should be effective with legislators.
Of course, this doesn’t have to be a choice of one or the other.
The legislature could provide the money necessary to implement the smaller class sizes that they mandated last year. Then we can have our arts and athletic programs too.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.