A recent article in the Baltimore Sun addressed the damaging impact of the $130M deficit in funding for Baltimore City Public Schools, making it apparent that the arts are likely to be an early casualty.
Before this deficit, the public school system was in trouble. It has faced a crisis familiar to many urban school systems due to inadequate funding, underperforming schools and more. This most recent albatross makes for a bleak future for children in the Baltimore schools. Most concerning is that the future of Baltimore itself is inextricably linked to the quality of its school system and the breadth of education, or lack thereof, that it provides – there is no way around that.
So that brings us to the current crisis and the cuts. What is inevitable, and what is pointed out clearly in the Sun’s article, is that while everything will be on the table in order to reduce costs, things like arts funding are most vulnerable. The role of arts in Baltimore’s public schools before this crisis was anemic. Already, there is almost no music in the schools. Contrast that with the healthy and strong music offerings in other counties, especially Howard and Montgomery, and it’s clear that our kids in Baltimore are being cheated.
There are institutions that try to provide at least some access. The Baltimore Symphony’s ORCHKids program now enriches approximately 1,000 participating children in six schools across Baltimore with the joy of music in their lives, and goes way beyond music in its building of self-esteem and life skills. The Peabody Preparatory’s Tuned-In program picks up where ORCHKids leaves off and gives high-level, comprehensive music training free of charge to talented underrepresented children, almost all of whom go on to college. And going forward, Peabody’s new Breakthrough Curriculum focuses on connecting with community as an integral part of the training of Peabody Conservatory students, and includes among a number of partnerships, Young Audiences of Maryland. Then there is the wonderful Baltimore School for the Arts, a point of pride for the city schools, turning out gifted young artists who go on to many outstanding institutions of higher education, including the Peabody Conservatory.
But these and other arts programs, while vital, can’t substitute for broader arts education in our public schools. And now, for the broad swath of students across Baltimore’s schools, these cuts are likely to mean no music, instead of little music. This is not good news as the facts are in on the benefits of arts education for children. The arts promote and drive creativity, teamwork, focus, discipline, and self-esteem. There is also a growing body of evidence that music study positively impacts learning and even test scores across other areas. For example, a 2007 study, “Examination of Relationships between Participation in School Music Programs of Differing Quality and Standardized Test Results” published by Professor Christopher Johnson of the University of Kansas compared scores from demographically similar schools in elementary and middle schools but with sharply differing quality of music curriculums from four regions around the country, and found a range of 17 to 23 percent differential in both reading and math scores between schools with strong music programs and the others. A subsequent study in 2012 in the Nashville Public Schools showed a similar narrative: students studying music significantly outperformed their peers in key indicators like grade-point average, graduation rates, and ACT scores.
But studies and test scores aside, perhaps most importantly, for many kids arts offer a way to connect, to express themselves, and to find themselves and their way in the world. The value of that is immeasurable. Plato had it right when he said, “Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.”
City and State officials as well as business and educational leaders must work together to solve this challenge in a way that raises up the children attending Baltimore’s Public Schools rather than diminishing their opportunities. Baltimore is a city with many wonderful assets, especially its citizens. But we need to face up to the fact that we will never solve Baltimore’s challenges without adequately investing in and supporting our schools, and our kids. And that includes the arts – they are no less of an imperative than the other critical skills our children will need to develop. Of course there are no easy answers to this. If there were, it would have been done a long time ago. But we have to try. For our kids’ sake – for Baltimore’s sake, we have to try.