Extracurriculars not extra, they’re curricular

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 30, 2009

People not familiar with where public schools in Mississippi get money might not realize it, but members of the Legislature have never considered choirs, bands, arts and drama programs in grade schools worth funding.

That’s right.

In a state that probably generates more musicians and writers per capita than any other, the state provides little to nothing to pay for classes to nurture their talents or challenge their inventiveness.

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Here’s the deal: Until 1997, school districts were allocated state money under something called Minimum Program Funding.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

The way it worked was that state personnel visited schools and tallied up the number of children in chairs. Based on the total, the state calculated how many reading, math and science teachers and support personnel would be needed by a district. In turn, it would send the district a check to pay 100 percent of the state-set salary for the required number of employees and for books and such.

Some districts, including public schools here, added a small local supplement to the state salaries.

In 1997, the state shifted to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which uses similar methods. A difference is that there are formulas to balance allocations and enhance the borrowing capacity of schools in more affluent and less affluent areas. (There are no “rich” public schools in Mississippi.)

Districts could still offer supplemental courses, with salaries and some of the costs raised through local property taxes, and most still do.

Not funded under Minimum Program or MAEP approaches are band, choir or art and any number of instructional programs deemed “extracurricular” by the state.

Schools that have such courses — and we can easily reach consensus that the Vicksburg Warren School District has had exceptionally strong music, visual arts and drama programs for decades — do so purely by choice of local school boards, for the most part. (I think there is now a state “fine arts” graduation requirement of a half-credit and students must take at least a semester in a drama, art or music course — but the state doesn’t support the requirement financially.)

There is really nothing wrong with the state not paying for band uniforms or instruments or paying the royalties so the drama students can stage musicals or sending choirs to national competitions. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Here and elsewhere, parents and students have shown the diligence to have bake sales, work concession stands, hold car washes — do whatever it takes — to raise cash to match with district cash to keep such non-required “extras” flourishing.

There are benefits. Without the numbers to back it up, my guess is that just about as many local students reap dividends in the form of arts and music scholarships as academic scholarships.

But here’s the rub. In a pattern that has become well-established through the years, local districts, to keep quality programs going, have relied on larger and larger shares of their local budgets coming from local taxes. With the state already reducing its allocations this year and poised to reduce funding more, the enrichment programs are in a vise, of sorts. The local money is going to have to be stretched to cover expenses the state formerly covered.

We saw this earlier in the fall when the Jackson Public Schools voted to scrap Strings, a program conducted in partnership with the Mississippi Symphony. The vote was later rescinded so that the program is “merely” scaled back.

The popular view, which is understandable, is that in lean times, “basics” matter most. The focus should be on reading, writing and arithmetic. Down and dirty. Lean and mean.

But the reality is kids don’t flourish in such environments. The “extra” programs augment learning and energize them. That makes them essential.

Indications here are that school trustees don’t consider “extracurriculars” optional. Pity districts — especially the students in districts — where leaders join with lawmakers in believing band, music, drama, art and challenging advanced placement courses are luxuries. They’re not.