And the beat goes on! At least the Wyoming cycle of boom and bust goes on and with it the recurring pains when mineral revenues tank. It’s an old story. And, today, it’s a painful story because the “boom” seems to be disappearing from the “boom-bust” cycle. As University of Wyoming visiting lecturer, Trevor Houser, partner at the research firm Rhodium Group, pointed out recently, this time “it’s different.” The coal market may be in permanent decline and with it the revenues Wyoming has so thoroughly depended upon all these years to support state services and education. To illustrate the mood, it got downright rough lately in Cheyenne when the management council, in a contentious session, changed language for consultants looking into the school funding model. Members of the interim education committee claimed overreach. And, tempers flared. As one wag noted, “It’s hard to be a happy camper when the well’s running dry.”
This week’s forum addresses the troubling challenge of funding education during a bust cycle. I’ve invited a former state senator, a current one, and a high school teacher to address the issue. Here, Cindy Aune, award-winning Cody High School art teacher, makes an appeal for new and creative approaches to the funding crisis, hoping for the kind of creativity that art teaches young people.
At bottom is the dilemma of how Wyoming meets its constitutional obligation to provide quality education equally for all its citizens in the face of an unprecedented $400 million shortfall in revenues needed to accomplish that end. Nothing is more distasteful than talk of raising taxes, but we probably won’t be able to cut ourselves out of this dilemma either. So, what’s your thinking? In the words of Bob Dylan “the times, they are a changing” and we need citizen participation in this discussion as never before. We’ll look forward to your comments — Pete Simpson.
There is a statewide group of art teachers that volunteers its time to put on an annual celebration of the quality artwork created by students from all over Wyoming: the State High School Art Symposium, held each April. These teachers are fueled by a passion for encouraging student engagement in the visual arts. This April, when the group (the Wyoming Secondary Art Educators Association) was nominating officers for next year, nominee after nominee said: “I wish I could accept, but I am not even sure I will be here next year.”
It is a disturbing, statewide trend. And it is a tired, old conversation. Money is tight. We must cut spending. We will cut the arts programs. This knee-jerk reaction to budget crises is certainly not a new response and certainly is not only a Wyoming issue. It happens everywhere, every time there is a budget crunch.
What is new is the amount of scientific support for providing arts education as a vehicle for high-order thinking skills. Supporters of the arts can easily find research and good statistical evidence that links creative activities to success in all other disciplines. There are, however, reasons to support the arts in education that go beyond measurable evidence.
As a long-time arts educator, I see new trends in the way that students approach learning — trends that are becoming barriers to true engagement with their studies. And, I see ways that participation in the arts can address these problems and lead to a successful educational experience.
First, learning is becoming a chore rather than a choice. If you complete all of the chores, you may do well on the test. We hear students ask, “Will this be on the test?,” or, “Will this be graded?” Their real question is, “Do I really have to spend my energy doing the work to learn this.” They have forgotten that learning is an adventure.
When students are in a fine arts class that exists without the pressure of high-stakes testing, they can be reminded that sometimes we learn just because. We find that there can be pleasure in just the process of learning. Students can connect with a concept, a medium, a genre and just go learn, because there is pure joy in just learning.
It is important to be able to experiment and to learn without fear. Too often we see students’ fear of failure leads to lackluster effort. Lack of effort is a safe excuse for lack of accomplishment. If I don’t really try, I can’t be blamed for poor performance. Often artistic works are produced by pure experimentation. And, sometimes the best successes are accidental.
If your work is an experiment, you are free from the pressure of creating success. Students of the arts are always encouraged to work out of their comfort zone. They learn pretty early that not everything they produce will be show-worthy, but their best successes are usually the result of experimenting with something new. The process of working from concept to creation is a mighty powerful learning tool.
There is a prevalent feeling among students that, if there is no prize, it isn’t worth doing. In fact, not everything in life needs to be a competition. It can be mighty rewarding to complete a painting, learn a song, or choreograph a dance with all of your passion, even if no one ever gives it a prize. The artistic experience does not need to be the subject of a test to validate its importance. In fact, competitions often encourage conformity — the assumption is that everything should be the same in order to be properly judged. If everyone is doing the same tricks, it is easy to make comparisons, but the work becomes robotic.
Creativity is more powerful than competition — it makes us human. Through art, we document memories, express ideas and emotions, and interpret events. Our creativity is a vehicle for communicating what is important to us. Creativity is also the medium for cultural and scientific advancement. The people who find a cure for cancer will be people who are capable of innovative thought.
It is disheartening to hear teachers say they don’t know if their arts classes will be supported in the future. But, even though there is plenty of information available to support the arts in education, finding financial support for the arts in a time of economic instability can be difficult.
We all know that the state of Wyoming is facing another year of revenue loss due to a waning energy economy. There is no simple fix. Mineral taxes can no longer be counted on to keep state revenue at the same levels we have enjoyed in the past. It will take some creative thinking to come up with long-term solutions. In the interim, our legislators might take a closer look at the purpose of Wyoming’s rainy-day fund — the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account. If the fund is intended to provide a balance in times of funding shortfalls, then it makes sense to use a portion of the account to keep education funding at its current level until the state can explore other ways to manage the budget.
Obviously, the problem is revenue. Legislators have to find new sources of revenue, and find ways to entice new business ventures to locate in Wyoming.
Invest in the kind of infrastructure that makes it easy for forward-thinking tech companies to function in our state. Shore up transportation issues to make coming and going more efficient. Make it worthwhile for those interested in eco-tourism to stay and develop businesses that celebrate our healthy environment. Support ways to make Wyoming culturally creative in order to develop vibrant, proud communities.
The conversation about how to balance the state’s budget is underway. Interim committee meetings on education and revenue have started. Whether to keep arts in education will again be up for consideration.
As educators, we are often told that our students must be prepared for jobs that do not yet exist. We are also told that our students must learn to think creatively in order to prepare for those jobs. Rather than taking the old approach to budget issues by looking to make severe cuts in educational opportunities, why not strive to make Wyoming an example of progressive educational practice.
We can set a good example for students — our future citizens and legislators — by showing them that trying new approaches to old problems can lead to surprising successes. We can show them that our approach to the budget crisis can’t be about competition for funding sources that are disappearing — it must be about finding the courage to try something new. We might find that the process of learning how to deal with a huge budget crisis, experimenting with progressive solutions, and developing a workforce willing to tap into their own creativity will make Wyoming an even more inviting place to live.
Cindy Aune is a high school art teacher in Cody — Ed.