Schools are starving for arts education

On Sept. 16, the drama surrounding education funding will take center stage as the Philadelphia Theatre Company, The Wilma Theater, and Arden Theatre Company will partner to stage a reading of School Play, a theater piece about Pennsylvania’s education crisis that was commissioned by Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY).

The evidence is clear: When we fail to provide access to arts and culture for Philadelphia students, we put them at a severe disadvantage not just now, but also in a ripple effect that will continue the rest of their lives. That is the story that School Play tells.

This free, one-night-only performance at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre is jointly produced by PCCY and GroundSwell, the arts advocacy and community engagement program of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Theater artists and administrators will participate, along with young people from local theater education programs. Tickets are available here.

The event falls during National Arts in Education Week, designated by Congress in 2010. The goal of National Arts in Education Week is to support equal access to the arts for all students and to showcase the role that arts education plays in students’ academic and long-term success, particularly to elected officials and education leaders across the country.

In cities like Pittsburgh, Denver, Charlotte, Portland and San Francisco, National Arts in Education Week is a time for recognition of their already thriving arts education programs. These cities have all produced effective strategies to prioritize art and music in schools through citywide integrated cultural plans that include dedicated funding for arts education.

If this were the case in Philadelphia, we wouldn’t need productions like School Play. Out of 218 Philadelphia schools, only 174 have a visual art teacher, and only 25 have school-based instrumental music teachers. And even then, two-thirds of those teachers don’t have a budget for supplies or for their classrooms.

When our schools are forced to make budget cuts year after year, too often art and music classes are the first to go. These programs are treated as electives, despite clear evidence that they are must-haves for a well-rounded curriculum that inspires engaged, creative thinking.

Studies have shown that students who participate in art and music programs throughout their school careers outperform their peers in academic success, graduation rates, and employment. Furthermore, Stanford University studies have found that troubled students involved in school arts programs are more likely to succeed academically and socially, even among their peers who do not experience insecure home lives or violent school environments.

Art and music are important to students and motivate many to come to school. In a 2014 testimony in support of arts education and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, Masterman senior Asia Kaiser told City Council, “I believe that playing an instrument is a beautiful form of self-expression and freedom. I was principal cellist in Philadelphia middle school all-city, and last year was my first year of high school all-city, and I am very proud of those accomplishments.”

But Kaiser also said that most of her experiences with arts are outside of school, coming through programs such as the Cultural Alliance’s STAMP pass and the youth music organization Musicopia.

It’s not hard to find examples of ways in which the nonprofit arts and culture community is working to fill the gaps left by the loss of a regular arts curriculum in all schools. In nearly every neighborhood, you’ll find dedicated groups and organizations that are working in schools or providing much-needed afterschool and summer programming. But while our artists and organizations are on the ground addressing these challenges as best we can, we are not a full solution.

It is time for our elected officials and policymakers to step up. State education budget cuts have devastated arts programs in our schools. State leaders must provide fair and adequate funding for our schools so principals can rehire lost arts teachers in all disciplines and integrate arts into many aspects of the curriculum.

There is a global spotlight on Philadelphia as a burgeoning artistic and creative hub. We’ve promoted our cultural vibrancy to court tourists, celebrities, the Democratic National Convention and even the Pope. But you would never know that this is a world-class city for arts and culture by looking at our schools. It’s about time we ensure that our students are granted the same opportunities.