Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Generational Impact of the Recession

It seems as if everywhere you look these days, schools are cutting programs, positions and, often, entire buildings. Our local district, Liverpool, voted last week to close one elementary at the end of the year, and there are plans to close a second at the end of next year. Syracuse's city school district is also drawing up plans to consolidate elementaries. I saw on the news yesterday that Ithaca's school district is proposing to make massive cuts to their music program, ending the elementary instrumental program altogether and eliminating music positions at multiple grade levels.

You might argue, of course, that this is a New York State phenomenon. But anecdotally, at least, it isn't. My sister-in-law and her family live in Lynchberg, Virginia, and they're also struggling with the prospective elimination of instrumental education in their schools.

But nobody's going to argue that what I'm seeing locally isn't directly related to NY's overall fiscal health. We're broke, folks. The state coffers are running on empty, to the point where they actually are delaying payment on tax refunds until after the new fiscal year begins on April 1st. And, honestly, I think that may be optimistic. There's no way that a budget will be in place by April 1st, so the temptation to hold onto that money "just a little longer" is going to be overwhelming. But it's a sign of the times hereabouts.

Most school districts get massive cash infusions from the state. This isn't the state government being nice - those are our tax dollars being allocated back to where we live. But in recent years, a combination of factors have resulted in NY being destitute. In some cases, the cause lies with former governor Pataki's administration. They were able to arrange for certain debts to come due after they had left office, so now the new administration needs to deal with them. We do this all the time - we pass the debt onto our children. The difference is that often we don't really see what happened, because the impact is 30 years out instead of 3 years. It's easy to forget that 30 years ago we passed a law or made a change that would have an economic, environmental or political effect three decades later. Why are we having this problem now? Oh, right! Because Carter or Reagan or (governor) Cuomo enacted some legislation and handed us the bill here in the future. Sometimes living in "the future" is pretty cool, other times not so much. Right now is looking like one of those other times, as least where schoolkids are concerned.

Adults get lots of chances at getting stuff right. You might say "you never get to be 34 again," but then it turns out that being 35 looks pretty much the same. It's different for kids. They literally only get one shot at their primary education, at elementary school, at 4th grade. If you mess up a kid's education for a year, repeating it can be just as traumatic as pushing forward and trying to catch up. But either way, the boat on "normal 4th grade year" has sailed. It's gone - you can't have it back, you can only deal with the consequences.

So how much are we losing by jamming more kids into smaller classrooms, or uprooting kids from their neighborhoods and sending them to schools that are miles further away? How much do we lose by not teaching a kid an instrument during those critical years when their developing brains soak up information and process it and turn it into lasting knowledge? For that matter, do we even fully understand the neural connections that might be enhanced or improved because a child is mentally stimulating their "musical" sense at the same time they're trying to learn algebra? Ok, so that last argument is spurious because we don't know whether there's an effect, but we do know that the fine arts have had a valued place in virtually every human culture going back to pre-history. Losing that in this generation of kids is sad, and once it's gone, it's gone. You don't get a second chance to teach that 8-year-old the flute. You may catch them when they're 10 or 14 or 39, but they're only 8 for one year and then they're not anymore. And being 8 is a lot different in the broad spectrum of the human experience than being 28 or 38 or 48.

That's what we're dealing with now, though. The generational impact of the recession. Every year that we cut programs or schools or teachers, we've lost that once chance to provide the best education possible for that group of kids in that particular year. It's gone and you can't have it back. The kids grow up and change and, ah, well, maybe we'll do better with the next batch of kids, right?

It's far too early to know what the impact will be. Maybe it will be a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of our culture and our nation's emerging history. Or perhaps in 20 years people will be wondering why the symphonies lack for fresh blood and why all of the job applicants seem just a little less spectacular than the groups that came before them. Or a lot less spectacular. I do know that it worries me to see these broad cuts affecting such a wide swath of students. If we can't really ever make it up to them and we certainly won't write them off, where's that leave them? Where's it leave us?

1 comment:

  1. So true... One of my favorite lines from the movie Mr. Holland's Opus - Mr. Holland is talking to the Vice Principal about budgetary woes - "Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren't going to have anything to read or write about."