Before the D.C. school board's Education Committee voted last week not to recommend funding of a program that brings theatrical performers and artists into the public schools, the members heard arguments about how unnecessary this program was because Washington was unique -- a veritable storehouse of art and performances that are free.
The program, called Young Audiences, was started in Baltimore more than 30 years ago and now, because of its astounding success, has chapters in 37 states, including Maryland and Virginia.
But the D.C. Education Committee rejection puts the District program in jeopardy, and it seems unfair that students from areas in Southeast and far Northeast Washington could lose the benefits of art appreciation that are afforded to students in Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
The idea behind the Young Audiences program is to give students a firsthand, close-up look at performers in action, in hopes that they will one day become part of the larger cultural audience.
The scarcity of black people on the Mall, inside the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center and other theaters suggests that those institutions have their work cut out for them.
Last year, Young Audiences held 833 programs in 119 District schools. There were 21 perfomances at Ballou High in Southeast alone, and that was because the students literally begged for more.
There were opera singers, jazz combos, theatrical productions and dance troupes, with students able to talk with the performers, broaden their scope of understanding and learn about ways and worlds they never knew existed.
Because it is hard to measure the value of this kind of learning, arts and humanities are always vulnerable to cutbacks in favor of technological advancement. The decline in the support of the arts in the age of "Star Wars" is not much different from the days of Sputnik. Yet, the amount of time children spend watching television and listening to rock 'n' roll reflects their limited cultural horizons.
Under D.C. School Superintendent Floretta McKenzie, public school arts programs have made an impressive comeback. Before she took over in 1981, school music and art classes had hit rock bottom. Since then, more than $300,000 has been spent on instruments, art supplies and teachers.
But much more can be done. In the case of Young Audiences, the issue at hand was not even the $25,000 that the program sponsors were asking for. With five board members up for reelection, approval of the funds was virtually assured.
School administrators who urged the Education Committee to kill the idea were simply worried that it might set a precedent and cause other arts groups to seek school board monies. But there is no other program like Young Audiences.
For the past two years, the program has been funded through a grant from the Mobil Corp. When that money ran out, a request was made to have the program funded through the school board -- the way it is done in New York City. It is an idea that should be reconsidered.
Meanwhile, the students who have benefited from Young Audiences are not going to stand by and watch their programs gutted. Starting Oct. 21, students from 49 schools will be holding a Run for the Arts, taking pledges from family and friends to raise money to keep it going.
D.C. school officials say they will help the Young Audiences locate funds from private donors. But this community has been notorious in its neglect of the local arts scene, with the Duke Ellington School of the Arts being a possible exception.
The appreciation of art and the enhancement of the quality of life that it brings, is not something people are born with. It is learned. So it is not enough that the Washington area offers a spectacular range of artistic gifts, including museums, galleries and theaters that are free.
If people don't know enough about it to appreciate it, this might as well be just another hick town.