By Christina Burton
Low-income children, particularly black and Hispanic kids, are suffering the most from a cliff-like decline in childhood arts education.
In a recent government study, more than 50 percent of young black adults surveyed in 1982 said they received a childhood arts education compared to 26 percent in 2008, a 49 percent drop and the largest among all race groups. Among whites, childhood arts education dropped only 5 percent in the same time period.
The findings, released by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), give merit to the idea that budget cuts affecting arts programs are heavily concentrated in black and Hispanic school districts. In Los Angeles County, where about 1 in 10 people are black and half the residents are Hispanic, $18 million in state budget cuts are causing public schools to fire teachers, stop ordering books and increase class sizes, especially in poorer school districts.
Statewide funding for art and music classes have also been cut.
Despite the disproportionate impact of public education cutbacks on black and Hispanic children at the local, state and national level, George Simpson, principal of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and an African-American, says that minority children have not been discouraged from getting interested in “what is familiar to them.”
Lisa Rentz, an arts teacher in Beaufort, S.C., teaches in three schools that are 96 percent black. These schools were specifically chosen for an “arts integration” federal grant that increased the amount of arts activities and projects within the school system to increase engagement and academic achievement.
“Availability of arts education in schools and arts opportunities– open auditions, calls for art shows, inexpensive classes – are the key to interest,” Rentz said. “It’s kind of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation. With kids, especially, if there’s no art to make, no stage for them, then they will quickly find less culturally beautiful activities to fill their time and thoughts.”
“The truth is that there is excitement about what they know,” Simpson said. “Youth culture of all ethnicities is ever attuned to popular arts—[including] music—the dominant art form—and some dance, graphic arts, film [and] media.”
LACHSA, a free public school founded in 1985, is currently building a brand new facility. Six hundred students from across Los Angeles County—some who travel more than 30 miles— attend LACHSA each day. Its ratio of white to black students is five to one.
The school, like other arts programs and organizations nationwide, is largely funded by their own fundraising efforts. LACHSA lost about $1 million in state funding since the 2008-2009 school year. The Genesee Center for Arts and Education in Rochester, NY receives most of its funding from local and regional foundations, but corporate funding has shifted to the shallow end of the pool.