By Keira Quintero
During music class one day, I tasked my first graders with writing the correct rhythm to match the words of a poem. Chase*, who has been struggling with reading and math and was often disruptive in class, proudly turned his paper over and showed me what he had written on the back. I was expecting a drawing or doodles. Instead, he had written a poem about the game “Angry Birds” complete with the correct rhythms for each word. He had created a unique poem, something that was his own and he could be proud of. When I said how impressed I was, his face lit up. Was it all rhythmically correct? No, but Chase had found a creative outlet that he had not been able to tap into in his regular classroom. A third grader now, Chase is thriving in music, has fewer behavioral problems, and struggles less academically.
But what if Chase didn’t have access to music? What if during budget cuts, district leaders decided that the music program should be the first to go? Where would that leave Chase and the countless other students who excel creatively but may struggle with math and literacy?
There are broad disparities in fine arts education around our state. The strongest factor that dictates this is a student’s zip code. Students in suburban areas receive more instruction in the arts than other areas in the state while access in urban schools varies and is highly dependent on the size of the district and the school. Students in rural and small school districts receive the least amount of instruction in arts education. This is true regardless of socio-economic status of the students enrolled in those schools.
As a teacher, I know that the two main factors that contribute to a lack of arts education are funding and time. With a greater emphasis being placed on math and literacy skills and on standardized testing, fine arts have been some of the first programs to be cut from a school budget and curriculum. This is disappointing, considering the research that links literacy skills to music and points to an intimate connection between rhythm, speech recognition, and reading. As a state, we should be focused on making these experiences more, not less accessible to our students. Unless and until we fix the funding formula, cuts to fine arts education will continue.
Springfield started the journey of ensuring equitable funding in our state through a new house bill which was introduced on February 9th. This bill would make school funding equitable and adequate and would distribute new funds to the neediest schools first. Local contributions would also be taken into consideration when dispersing funds. The bill aligns with equity principles listed in the commission’s report which was published on February 1st. We need urgent support for this bill from parents, educators, community members and legislators so the cycle of under-funding low-income schools in Illinois can be stopped.
Quality fine arts programs are vital to a child’s education and all children deserve access to such programs. Without access to music and art, Chase may be in a very different place than he is now. He would not have the opportunity to create and express his ideas. Instead, he may be tangled up in academic struggles and behavior referrals. How many more students like Chase are scattered across Illinois yet they can’t realize their potential because their schools are underfunded? We need to help our students. We need to fix the funding formula.
Keira Quintero teaches Pre-K-5th grade general music at Forest Glen Elementary School in Glen Ellyn. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.
*Student name has been changed