Schools shouldn't have to resort to benefit concerts in order to pay for arts education

A holiday concert experience this year was a gift in itself.

Billed as a benefit for the "Miles Exploratory Learning Center's Departed Art Ed," it was performed by Howe Gelb and His Melted Wires at the Loft Cinema. The gist of the event was that Miles ELC, like other public-education institutions in this increasingly benighted state, is suffering from budget cuts that seriously challenge its ability to provide kids with a well-rounded education.

With public funding so tight, anything that isn't nailed down to the foundation of "essential curriculum" is at risk. This can mean the elimination of such educational bells and whistles as music and art—thus, the clever title for the benefit. It was a great show, with an impromptu appearance by the young voices of Room 4, led by Howe's eager (and apparently fearless) daughter Tallulah.

Miles doesn't have it nearly as bad as some schools, thanks in part to open enrollment and cool musician parents. But, really, are benefit concerts a sustainable way to fund education? Are subjects like music and art so "nonessential" that they should just be thrown overboard in bad times?

"Many kids don't discover their talent until they are exposed to it," says a friend who teaches elementary school. She recounts her shock in moving here from a state that "really values education" and discovering just how demoralizing things are in Arizona. "It comes down to whether we just care about passing tests, or we care about raising well-rounded little people."

Calculated attempts to blame the economy notwithstanding, the responsibility for this intolerable situation rests squarely with our Neanderthal Legislature. For many years now, Arizona has ranked close to last among the 50 states in funding education, while the Republican majority irresponsibly slashes taxes and cranks out lucrative favors for their business cronies at the expense of a solvent state budget. And the damage they have done to our educational system is not limited to K-12. A professor friend bemoans "differential cuts" at the University of Arizona, wherein humanities must shrink by 7 percent, compared to just 2 percent for science and business. Apparently, to those in power, hauling in grant money is far more important than critical thinking.

"It's not that the Legislature doesn't value art education," Miles' principal told me in the lobby after the show. "It's that they don't value education."

The budget crisis forces schools to make cruel choices about which part of a child's educational experience will be denied. Will it be the school counselor that gets laid off, or the gym teacher? Which do you ax: electives or field trips? Art or music? "We try to keep our people," she said of their priorities. The Legislature would have you think that it's all about money, but professionals in the schools know better. Every person that gets cut out of the educational picture translates directly into less attention for students, particularly for those who need it most—those with special needs, lower family incomes and/or no hipster benefit dads—or no dads, period.

What's the Legislature's next step? In addition to talk of more tax cuts that would probably just about bankrupt the state, there is a movement afoot to wipe out a tax credit that encourages donations to public schools, while expanding one for tuition payments to private schools. It's just a continuation of the same old disturbing pattern of anti-government class war.

Miles has a special program for hearing-impaired students that lets them learn alongside their peers. It costs more, but it greatly enriches their educational experience. Maybe the scrooges in the Legislature who think it's a good idea to starve our public schools would benefit from a semester or two of remedial instruction at Miles, where they could learn that everybody matters, and that sometimes, exceptions must be made (and money must be spent) for the good of humanity.

Why shouldn't kids be able to take electives and have the choice to learn about things that excite them? Art, music, writing and other "nonessentials" are, in fact, essential in teaching kids to think creatively, expanding their perspectives and rewarding their curiosity.

Maybe on Christmas Eve, when Skinny Claus comes snaking down the swamp-cooler duct and lands with a crunching thump on the holiday tumbleweed, instead of a huge bag of useless plastic crapola, he'll bring a brand-new Legislature for all the girls and boys—one that gives more than a budget cut and a rat's ass about their future.

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