For every student, whether attending school virtually or in person, access to an arts curriculum is imperative. It is even more important now after the pandemic has kept students apart for so many months. Arts help us all connect and feel compassion. Lawmakers should prioritize funding for arts education.
Art is essential to adolescent development. The arts engage with the brain’s hippocampus, which builds an emotional awareness and fosters empathy, especially at a young age. Research has also shown a connection between arts education and increased academic achievement.
Yet, while the arts provide tools to live a happy, balanced life, arts education is often among the first programs cut from the school budget. As the pandemic recedes, students need access to the arts to heal from months of isolation and to readjust to life conducted face to face.
The Biden administration’s 2022 fiscal year budget proposes doubling Title I funding to $36.5 billion, the largest increase in history. This is an opportunity to address years of underinvestment in high-poverty schools and to significantly reshape public education holistically. Research demonstrates that arts education supports Title I goals, including improving student achievement and school environment. Similarly, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget made historic commitments to education, with billions of dollars in funding for California schools.
However, neither budget made a commitment to arts education despite its profound impact on students in the midst of the pandemic.
This is particularly important in California because my state is behind other states in the percentage of students enrolled in arts programs – just 39%, shockingly low compared with 70% in Arizona, Wisconsin and Ohio.
The California Education Code requires complete Visual and Performing Art (VAPA) access, including instruction in music, dance, theater and visual arts. However, nearly 9 out of 10 schools in California do not offer this instruction.
Schools need to expand arts education to more students now more than ever.
As students have found themselves and their peers reduced to small boxes on computer screens when distance learning replaced in-class instruction during the pandemic, feelings of sadness, depression and anxiety have become commonplace. Some students have discovered ways to lighten these emotional burdens: They recognized music, dance and media as crucial forms of healing and connection.
I have discovered this effect myself.
As a classical vocalist for the past 10 years, I anticipated the exhilaration I felt during a concert. First, the chorus would warm up, then we would apply blush to our cheeks and wait for 15 minutes before filing on to the stage. We would start to sing a selected repertoire, transitioning from French to Latin to English, until the conductor would sustain our last note and then release.
There is one second between the end of a song and the applause where I hold my breath. My eyes would scan the audience until I saw the face of an 80-year-old woman in the front row who is a recurring attendee at our concerts. I would watch as tears begin to form in the corners of her eyes. Then the applause comes. As we bow and then make our way off the stage, I am reminded how much singing means to me and to those who come to hear us.
These types of experiences in the arts benefit all students, and they are critical for students struggling right now who are in need of healing. For students in California, arts education is a civil rights issue.
Sonia Patel Banker is a fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where she has worked to promote the arts justice campaign. She will be a senior at San Francisco University High School this fall.
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