Art and music classes in Pennsylvania's elementary schools may be headed down the same road as language instruction - desirable but dispensable, too costly in an era of ever-tightening public education budgets.
In Delaware County's blue-collar Upper Darby school district, pressure to allocate more money and more classroom time to core academic subjects could trigger the elimination of elementary school music and art classes, physical-education teachers, and librarians this fall.
In high-achieving and prosperous Tredyffrin/Easttown, in Chester County, budgetary woes threaten elementary and middle school instrument instruction.
A statewide survey of school districts last summer showed that among those responding, 44 percent reduced course offerings not required for graduation, including foreign languages, arts, music, physical education, and some elective English, science, and social-studies courses.
"We're seeing fiscal stress in even the wealthier school districts," said Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg-based policy and advocacy group that recently launched an arts and education initiative. Many "that have survived until this year without making big cuts have run out of other options, so art and music could be among the casualties."
The worst-case scenario is already playing out in Delaware County's Chester Upland district, which eliminated virtually all arts and music classes last fall, and Harrisburg, which is considering cutting all art and music starting this fall. Other districts are weighing less drastic cuts, said David Davare, research director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
The Upper Darby district, ninth largest in the state with 12,140 students, has a long history of arts excellence. The prospect of eliminating arts and music classes has sparked an outcry; a Facebook group, Save the Music in Upper Darby, has about 12,000 members. There are plans to mobilize for a school board meeting Tuesday, when the board will take its first vote on the proposed budget that includes the cuts.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," Colleen Kennedy, 22, a West Chester University student and Upper Darby High graduate who helped organize the opposition, said in an interview.
The school board is under intense financial pressure to make cuts, she said, so arts advocates are looking to the state legislature for solutions. "Our fight is not with the school district. It's with the state."
Melanie Shanfield, 19, a George Mason University sophomore and co-organizer, said the arts helped her develop "discipline, character, self-control, and the ability to forge relationships while at the same time having fun."
In the 6,460-student Tredyffrin/Easttown district, a proposal to eliminate instrumental instruction in elementary and middle school was taken off the table this month. But it will come up again next year, and possibly even later this spring, some board members warned, if a budget gap of more than $2 million cannot be bridged in other ways.
"We really have no choice," said board president Karen Cruickshank. "I really hope people understand this is here to stay."
Michael Hoban, a sixth grader and trumpet player at Valley Forge Middle School, sat through several hours of discussion to share his views with the board. Cutting instrumental lessons, he said, would mean "tearing down a big part of our school."
Tredyffrin/Easttown would save about $375,000 by eliminating string and band instrumental classes. More than 1,200 children in grades three to eight now take the lessons. General music classes would continue untouched.
Upper Darby began planning this year with a budget gap of about $13 million. The proposed cuts would save about $2.9 million, eliminating more than 40 jobs. The district cut 60 teaching positions last year, including 11th- and 12th-grade physical education.
This year, along with art and music, middle school foreign-language and some technology classes are threatened.
Administrators vow that if art and music classes are eliminated, they will integrate more fine arts into everyday instruction. And they are proposing voluntary Saturday enrichment classes to give students an hour each of art and music every other week, at minimal cost to the district. Instrumental lessons during the school day would continue.
Even with the cuts, a tax increase of between 2.6 and 4 percent is under discussion, administrators said.
Many parents and students strongly object to the proposal. Several dozen attended a township council meeting last week to enlist support. "Where is this going to put our district competitively with others?" said Carolyn Caron, the mother of a sixth grader. "We don't want these cuts. If they are made, our great arts programs will be gone in a few years."
Ninth grader Kevin Kelly told the council that "our school district needs a heart and soul, not just a brain."
The Upper Darby school board will probably go along with the change, said member Judith Gentile. "I have a lot of faith in the teachers. They will make this work," she said.
But she added: "If we had our druthers, we wouldn't do it, but we don't have a choice."
The Tredyffrin/Easttown district started out the year with a $6.2 million budget gap. It is struggling to close that shortfall, which projections show growing to $10.4 million in 2013-14.
Over the last two years, the district saved about $10 million through cuts and program changes, including eliminating elementary school foreign languages and technology education classes. But it is going to have to look at even more unpalatable choices, said board member Peter Motel. For example, an increase of one student per classroom starting next fall is still under consideration. Taxes could go up by as much as 3.3 percent.
"We have really trimmed the low-hanging fruit," Motel said at a school board meeting this month. "We are down to what's left - things we can still cut because they are not required by law, but we don't want to cut. . . . The list is horrifying: transportation, sports, the music programs. . . . We're trying to come up with ways to spread the pain."