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Money woes plague arts education funding

The Anna School District was looking forward to new acoustical tile in the choir room and fresh carpet in the band room with the $20,000 grant the government awarded the district. But when the check didn’t come until May, all of its hopes, along with $18,000, went out of the classroom window.

The money the Anna School District applied for was the arts and foreign language grant, which provides money for the maintenance or creation of arts programs in schools.

With the current economic crisis, the government has been backed up and unable to distribute money on time. This leaves companies and institutions little time to use all of the funds before the given deadline.

As for the Anna School District, the deadline was in May – the end of the school year. So, it had to give back the money it didn’t spend.

“Funding has been difficult with this particular grant, especially with the slowness of the funding,” said Paulette Aronson, retired visual arts educator for the district and co-grant writer.

Funding for the grant has decreased since its inception in 2006. In fact, the program has been cut by $3.5 million in the past five years.

The program expects to receive only $500,000 next year.

“You know $500,000 is not a whole lot when you’re thinking about a whole entire state,” said Chris Grodoski, advocacy advisor for Illinois Arts Education Association and visual arts teacher at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton.

It ends up being $200 per art teacher, which is about a dollar per student, he said.

The entire education department could receive a $400 million cut if Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget for the upcoming year passes. Education faces one of the biggest chops in 2014, because the cut, along with many others, is an effort to reform the $96.8 billion pension shortfall.

“I realize we’re in budget difficulties, but I feel the arts are important,” Aronson said.

However, at least one budget analyst believes lawmakers think its better to give money to education as a whole rather than divide it among specific subjects in order to cover more expenses.

“If you give money to school districts for arts education, that money can’t be used for anything else, but general state aid can be used in any way,” said Charlie Wheeler, University of Illinois at Springfield public policy professor and budget analysis.

Wheeler, a long-time budget expert, suspects the emphasis is on basic skills, like math and language. “Arts education is the frosting on the cake,” he said.

Even with less money allotted specifically for arts education, advocacy groups still believe the government should be doing more for arts education.

“I think there are a number of fronts. Whether that’s making sure arts are actually a part of the school day or possibly looking at making art a requirement for high school graduation,” said Scarlett Swerdlow, advocacy and communications director at Arts Alliance Illinois.

While the Anna School District lost thousands of dollars, it applied again the next year and planned for a late grant arrival. The district was able to buy the acoustic tiles and carpeting it needed.

“There are a lot of things the arts contribute. We don’t have them go in and just a draw a little picture,” Aronson said.

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