Fine arts education matters: how shrinking budgets deepen inequalities

Oklahomans know every student needs access to quality public education.  Unfortunately, our state has struggled to uphold this commitment.  While all areas of public education have suffered from slashed education funding over the past decade, budget cuts have hit fine arts education especially hard.  In the 2017-2018 school year, Oklahoma had 1,110 fewer art and music classes than four years prior, leaving 28 percent of all Oklahoma public school students without access to fine arts classes.  Statewide underfunding of arts education impacts all Oklahoma schoolchildren, but these cuts create deeper disparities in both access and quality for low-income and rural students.  The 2019 legislative session begins in February, but now is the time to gather concerns and share them with your representatives.  Our state must find new sources of recurring revenue for education funding, so we can uphold our promise to quality education. 

Fine arts education is part of a quality education

Fine arts education, which primarily includes music and visual art, but also drama, dance, and debate, is integral to adequately prepare all students for college and careers.  Just as sports provide students a way of learning unavailable in other disciplines, the fine arts help develop students’ critical thinking skills, spatial-temporal reasoning and helps increase tolerance and cultural awareness.  Still further, socially and economically disadvantaged students who have high levels of arts instruction have shown more positive outcomes in areas such as grade point average, school engagement, and civic participation than their low-arts engaged peers.  Fine arts may also help reduce dropout rates for low-income and students of color who face greater risk of not graduating.  In light of these benefits, having access to fine arts education is both vital and necessary to a well-rounded education, and Oklahoma is not adequately meeting this standard.

Oklahoma students do not have equal access to fine arts education

Fine arts education is not guaranteed for all students in Oklahoma. In rural parts of the state, students are less likely to have access to fine arts classes than students in metropolitan regions.  Schools in southeastern Oklahoma, the poorest region of the state, have the lowest average art offerings whereas Tulsa and OKC metro areas have the highest.  On average, rural high schools provide fewer music courses as well. 

Geography, however, only partially accounts for these disparities.  Within districts, poverty levels often determine whether or not a student gets a fine arts education. High-income schools are more likely to offer band, orchestra and choir programs than schools with less wealthy families.  The same is true for the visual arts.  Students in underserved urban communities are “much less likely to receive consistent, meaningful arts instruction in the classroom.”  Today, schools rely on their parent-teacher associations (PTA), partnerships with local art organizations, philanthropy, and grants to salvage fine arts instruction.  For this reason, one elementary school may have two full-time fine arts teachers, while a school across the district may have none.

PTAs save the visual arts for some affluent schools

Like other core subjects, funding for fine arts instruction comes out of a school’s general budget, and may be cut to use money for other priorities.  Parent-teacher associations in schools with high-income students sometimes rescue fine arts classes through substantial fundraising efforts.  When Tulsa Public School’s comparatively wealthy Council Oak Elementary (formerly Lee Elementary) lost its art allocation, art teacher Taylor Painter-Wolfe explained the PTA raised the funds necessary to hire a part-time art teacher.  Similarly, the PTA at Cleveland Elementary in Oklahoma City, where just 46 percent of the students are low-income compared to 84 percent across the district, raised $20,000 to save the school’s visual art program.

Low-income urban schools rely on good will and strong arts partnerships

While more affluent schools have greater capacity to secure their art programs, low-income urban schools are often reliant upon the good will of private philanthropy and community art organizations. Current Studio, an independent visual arts space in Oklahoma City, which has since closed, partnered with Eugene Field Elementary School (84 percent low-income) to provide guest arts teachers, supplies, and a three-week program for its students.  Many economically disadvantaged OKCPS elementary schools are reliant upon the support of local non-profits and philanthropy.  Without them, some schools would have no full-time arts instructor at all.   While these efforts fill a hole in fine arts education, programs like these are not full-time certified arts instruction, and because they require constant fundraising, they can be unpredictable and time consuming.  

Rural schools have fewer community partners

While many schools in urban areas benefit from greater proximity to arts organizations, not all rural schools have access to these institutions, and often have more difficulty salvaging the fine arts.  In addition to financial constraints,  fewer community art partnerships also mean fewer opportunities for professional development for fine arts teachers, and fewer teachers with arts training.  Two organizations, the Oklahoma Arts Council and the Oklahoma Arts Institute are crucial to providing professional development opportunities for teachers, supplemental arts education for students, and teaching artist residency programs.  According to their director, programs like these have become harder to maintain as state funding for the Oklahoma Arts Institute has been slashed by about 55 percent over the past decade.  The Oklahoma Arts Council has been similarly weakened.

Public funding for fine arts education is vital

Today in Oklahoma, students do not have adequate or equal access to fine arts instruction. As a result, our schools are less equal and less able to adequately prepare students for college and careers.  While highly motivated school leaders, teachers, parents, and community members rush to fill the void, these efforts leave some schools with robust fine arts programs and others with none at all.  Private funds for fine arts education do not replace the need for secure and sustainable public revenue for education. Instead, they deepen socioeconomic disparities.  While the teacher walkout in the spring resulted in a much-needed teacher pay raise, it did little to increase general education funding that had been cut 28 percent over the past decade.  HB1010xx was the first of many revenue-raising measures needed to fully revitalize our public schools. As the 2019 legislative session approaches, lawmakers should heed the call to restore needed state aid to our schools.


Rebecca Fine worked as the Education Policy Analyst and KIDS COUNT Coordinator at OK Policy from July 2018 until December 2020. Originally from New York, she began her career in education as an Oklahoma teacher. Rebecca proudly comes from a family of educators, and spent four years teaching middle school in Tulsa and Union Public Schools. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science from the University of Rochester and received an M.A. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

3 thoughts on “Fine arts education matters: how shrinking budgets deepen inequalities

  1. The arts, as you indicate, are a vital component of our society. Nurturing and funding the education and participation of the arts by the states school aged children is the responsibility of the state. Those people responsible, you can be sure, had the benefit of a comprehensive art curriculum. But are now afraid to share the wealth

  2. There are some bright spots out there, but it does depend on adequate funding. Okarche Public Schools has just begun a relaunch of their band program after a thirty year hiatus and are building a performing arts space. The community and administration has been very supportive. Yhe need and desire at the local level is out there, but the political will to even the financial score at a state level for communities that lack the resources of other districts seems to be nonexistent.

  3. I graduated from a school with no Fine Arts Funding. Everything we did in the Band we had to Fund-raise for. We were using the same band uniforms from 2000 and instruments with dents. But we sure got a new turfed football stadium in 2012.

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