A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

William McCann: Kentucky’s newly-adopted charter schools law may mean further cuts to arts education

I am conflicted about the newly adopted charter schools law for which regulations are now being promulgated by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Studies have shown that charter schools are no better than the public schools with which they compete. But since charter schools are paid for out of state education coffers the result is that charter schools will cause the Kentucky elementary-secondary schools financial pie to be cut into smaller pieces. Under such circumstances almost certainly school districts will reduce spending on the ‘frills’—band and orchestras, theatre and the fine arts.

I am passionate about the arts and believe that only by encouraging arts-based charter schools can public school arts programs be saved/expanded. As counterintuitive as it may seem those who support the arts should help start one or more charter schools that are based on an arts curriculum and—just as importantly– that the Kentucky School Facilities Construction Commission assist such charter schools.

In the pre-charter schools age that is coming to an end the common reason for reducing programming in the arts is “budgetary cuts.” Yet, two of Kentucky’s most effective and successful public schools are YPAS (Youth Performing Arts School) in Louisville and Lexington’s SCAPA (School for Creative and Performing Arts). Year in and year out these schools are among our best. Their students are always among those who attend the Governor’s School for Arts.

After graduation many will go to Juilliard, to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, to top-ranked colleges and universities in this country and abroad; it is arts training that is at the heart of their graduates’ success.

So now, along come charter schools whose budgets will come directly from public school budgets. And the public school boards—with less money for academic programs—will almost certainly reduce spending on the arts; only if individual student artists consistently get higher grades than ‘regular’ students might school boards reinvest in the arts.

Consequently, one response to such ‘good’ decisions by school boards is to open charter schools to directly compete with the art-starved districts which claim they “cannot afford” the arts. When arts charter schools succeed perhaps districts will discover how important arts programming can be to their own success.

Not far from where I live is the long-abandoned Mason Corinth School on US 25 in Grant County. Built in the 1930s the school it would require extensive renovation. But once fixed up its central location should attract students from Grant, Harrison, Owen, Pendleton and perhaps other northern counties. More such abandoned schools are no doubt to be found around Kentucky.

However, the biggest obstacle to arts schools are facilities. As academic subjects such as science require laboratory space and classrooms, so arts schools require stages, practice rooms, and studios not to mention computers, science labs, and the other necessities. Consequently, charter schools that repurpose previous public school facilities should be made eligible for funding from the School Facilities Construction Commission.

The Commission, headed by Chelsey Bizzle and headquartered in Frankfort, is the agency of state government which sells bonds in support of school facility construction and technology programs. It is this commission, who if its mission and regulations are changed, can also support the renovation and repurposing of former public schools as charter schools.

Charter schools will, soon be opening in Kentucky. The inevitable results of such schools will be cuts to arts programming. One way to fight such arts cuts is through successful arts-based charter schools. If school boards can be convinced—by the successes of arts charter school students—that the arts are a way for their students to succeed then school boards may expand their own arts programming. But charter arts schools must lead the way.

William H. McCann, Jr. a playwright, poet, editor, and publisher whose edits the Kentucky Theatre Yearbook. He lives near Corinth.

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