Manatee County's public schools are among the best in the country for arts education, a remarkable distinction given the severe budget cuts over the past few years. Thanks to the school board's unwavering commitment on the arts, students enjoy music and visual arts instruction at almost every school, exceeding national rates.
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics released last week shows about 97 percent of Manatee's elementary schools offer music classes while the national rate stands at 94 percent. But more telling are the percentages in elementary visual art courses: 83 percent nationwide, 100 percent in Manatee.
Except for one high school, all of the county's middle and high schools offer both, but nationally only 89 percent of secondary schools offer visual art and 91 percent music.
The school district is rightfully proud of this dedication to the arts. Elective courses are often targeted for cutbacks during tough times, but thankfully not here.
Extensive research concludes that music education improves learning skills and academic achievement as well as providing students with the creative skills that contribute to lifelong success. While the arts will not be a career path for many students, the teamwork and collaborative skills learned in music, theater and dance are valuable in any pursuit.
Manatee County shines in theater with drama classes at 83 percent of the high schools, best in the nation.
In a 2010 address titled "The Well-Rounded Curriculum," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated: "For decades, arts education has been treated as though it was the novice teacher at school, the last hired and first fired when times get tough. But President Obama, the First Lady, and I reject the notion that the arts, history, foreign languages, geography, and civics are ornamental offerings that can or should be cut from schools during a fiscal crunch. The truth is that, in the information age, a well-rounded curriculum is not a luxury but a necessity."
First Lady Michelle Obama once said, "The arts are not just a nice thing to have or do if there is free time or if one can afford it. ... Paintings and poetry, music and design ... they all define who we are as a people."
Beyond the classroom, the arts are now viewed as economic engines well worth community investment. A March headline in the Christian Science Monitor asked what surely is a common misconception about the value of the arts: "Cities facing tough economic times turn to ... the arts?"
Yes indeed is the answer. Municipal campaigns to nurture cultural organizations and attractions not only boost tourism but also attract a new creative class of residents, including high-tech designers and entrepreneurs along with the affluent. That, in turn, brings new restaurants, shops, galleries and other economic growth while improving the overall quality of life in a community.
Manatee County is fortunate that a large group of residents and community leaders united to form Realize Bradenton a few years ago with exactly that intent. Cities around the country are pursuing similar proven strategies, from Paducah, Ky., and Park City, Utah, to Buffalo, N.Y. and Denver, Colo.
The lesson here is that the arts hold great value from both personal and community perspectives. And this starts with a community's commitment to arts education. Cheers to the Manatee County school board and district for embracing that priority.