The Wanette School District is nestled in a rural stretch of Oklahoma about 30 miles southeast of Norman.
For a long time, high school juniors and seniors had a dedicated art teacher who taught class five days a week. They would paint, sketch and learn ceramics. That all changed five years ago after budget cuts forced district officials to eliminate the class.
Now, instead of creating art every day, high school students have the option of learning about its history online. Very few do.
Librarian Brenda Roberts is doing her best to revive the arts in Wanette. A few years ago, she started offering a new art class for middle school students.
“I’ve just been doing classes one or two days a week,” she said. “And I don’t even do that every year. Like, last year I was the counselor, too, and I had no time for art.”
Wanette isn’t the only Oklahoma school district forced to end fine arts classes in recent years.
A thousand fewer classes
State Department of Education data suggest Oklahoma schools ended 1,110 fine arts classes between 2014 and 2018, a period of severe state budget cuts. The cuts affected classes for visual arts, theater, music and band — as well as speech and debate. In 2018, nearly 30 percent of public school students in Oklahoma went to a school with no fine arts classes, state records show.
Arts programs are often the first classes administrators cut when schools have financial struggles because arts are not tested subjects.
Roberts said students’ loss of access to these courses is sad.
“I feel like art is extremely important,” she said. “Over the years of teaching, I’ve noticed it’s the students that do not excel in academic classes that really do well in art. It lets them shine.”
Rebecca Fine, an education policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the drop in art education affects certain schools more than others.
“When we look at fine arts programs across the state, we see that rural schools and low-income schools are being affected the most by these budget cuts,” she said.
Fine said the arts cuts deepen pre-existing inequalities that divide students at wealthy and poor schools and widens gaps between rural and urban schools.
Elizabeth Maughan, the fine arts director for the State Department of Education, doesn’t think shrinking budgets are the only factor fueling fine arts cuts. She said a bigger hurdle in maintaining these programs could be schools’ difficulty finding certified arts teachers, which is more challenging in rural districts.
“The students going into undergrad [teaching programs] aren’t going out to rural districts. So it makes it harder for rural districts to get teachers,” she said.
State records don’t paint a precise picture of what’s causing the loss of fine arts classes, or how they’ve played out district-by-district, but it’s clear these cuts have not hit all schools equally.
The Edmond Public School district, for example, has not cut any fine arts classes recently. But three years ago, the less affluent Oklahoma City Public Schools cut 44 art positions.
Rhonda Taylor, the director of visual and performing arts for OKCPS, said schools lost nearly 100 programs across the district. She said it makes sense that budget cuts would hurt Oklahoma City’s arts programs more than other schools.
“In other districts, very often they’re charging student fees for programs, and you’ll especially see this in band,” she said.
Taylor said it’s common for schools to charge students hundreds of dollars a year, which can pay for everything from art supplies and instruments to fine arts teachers’ salaries.
That’s not the case in Oklahoma City Public Schools, where most students and families can’t afford to pay for arts programs.
“We cannot rely on student fees at all,” she said.
Taylor said local artists, museums and theater organizations stepped in to fill the gap as state funding slowed in recent years. Artists visited schools and led students through workshops about music and ceramics. Taylor is thankful for the support, but she said it’s not the same as having consistent district art staff.
In rural Wanette, librarian Brenda Roberts said her students don’t have the same opportunities as their big city counterparts.
“Used to, when there was grant money for art, take the entire high school to the art museum in Oklahoma City. One time we took them to the Fred Jones Museum in Norman. But that money dried up too,” she said.
Roberts hopes lawmakers find a way to increase funding for the arts during the 2019 legislative session. She says music, dance, painting and drawing help kids build skills that math and English classes can’t.
She said many of her students will eventually move out of Wanette, and exposure to art at a young age will help prepare them for the various cultures they’ll be a part of in the future.
Research suggests Roberts is right. A 2014 University of Arkansas study found young people who were exposed to the arts were more tolerant and empathetic. Other studies show consistent access to arts education is associated with a reduced dropout rate.
Roberts knows these subjects aren’t going to end up on a state test, but she said they’re still an essential part of students getting a well-rounded public education.