Wake schools should step up arts funding

Who knows? Who knows what will happen after that 8-year-old draws the bow across the strings on that kid’s violin for the first time? Oh, it’s rough at first, sounding perhaps like a suffering cat.

But look at that kid’s face, as those first crude scratches become “Jingle Bells,” or other beginners’ songs. Look at the smiles that follow a dead-on note, a clear melody. There’s nothing like it for child or parent, nothing like that accomplishment to bolster a youngster’s confidence, and to channel his or her anxieties into happiness.

That’s what a school string program can do. It’s what an art class can do. It’s what dance can do.

Teaching kids the arts isn’t some luxury, and Wake school board member Bill Fletcher knows it. That’s why he requested a review of how the county is doing in providing arts programs in the schools, and how it can do better. The news was mixed: Only 15 of 36 middle schools and 13 of 23 high schools have a strings teacher, which is often a part-time position. (There are some teachers in elementary schools.)

And though magnet schools with a “gifted and talented” theme can get more funding for arts, other schools don’t have what they need.

No wonder. In the 1999-2000 school year, the county’s arts education budget was $300,000, and that covered things like transportation to the N.C. Symphony and the Museum of Art, and also musical equipment including band uniforms. Today, the arts budget is $113,000. And there are 58 more schools and 60,000 more students.

What happens is that booster groups and students themselves have to pay more, in the form of fundraisers and fees. That unfortunately means the schools that can raise money easily from affluent parents have better arts offerings than others.

This is not acceptable, and Fletcher, fortunately, seems determined that the school system will do better.

There should be requirements for arts courses for every student. A student who may be struggling in some ways might have his or her interest in education awakened because of a strings class, or dance instruction. Positive performance there could translate into a better way in other courses.

The county needs to take some clear steps: See that strings programs are available in all schools, and band programs, too; provide more money for instruments; secure more private support from organizations such at the state symphony, or private donors; commissioners should make the arts a priority again.

It’s simply shocking that in Wake County, funding for arts programs has declined as student population has increased. And there should be no financial barriers to students who want to learn arts-related courses, or master instruments. Instead of tolerating an anemic budget, the county should raise the budget to $500,000 immediately, and provide the types of programs students, students who really want to learn, deserve.