"I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for in the patterns of music and all arts are the keys to learning." -- Plato, philosopher
When it comes to funding education, Arizona ranks 49th in the nation -- almost dead last. And for many Rim Country parents, teachers and administrators, this dubious honor is not only discouraging, but correcting it feels like an insurmountable challenge.
In 1997 the Arizona State Legislature passed a law that gave residents a useful weapon in this ongoing funding war. It's called the Credit For Kids tax credit program. It doesn't strike at the heart of the problem, but it does provide a way for taxpayers to strengthen education without spending a dime of private money.
In essence, the law allows residents to deduct, as a tax credit, money given to schools for extracurricular activities. It even lets them choose what school and what program the money will benefit.
Here's how it works: Any household that pays Arizona taxes may donate up to $300 for married taxpayers filing jointly, or $200 for individual taxpayers. Since it's a tax credit, residents get their money back by claiming the same amount, dollar-for-dollar, when filing their state tax return.
How do extracurricular activities help strengthen education?
Numerous studies throughout the United States and abroad indicate that students involved in extracurricular programs like band and orchestra get better academic grades.
For example, in a 1995 "College-bound Seniors" national report, students with coursework or experience in music performance scored significantly higher on the SAT college entrance test -- 51 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math -- than students with no arts participation. Students with four or more years of arts study scored 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portions than students with no experience in the arts.
Another study, the Yamaha Program, showed that the reading level of first-grade students with a single year of music was nearly one grade higher than their peers; those with two years of music scored at almost a third-grade level; and some students scored as high as fourth- and fifth-grade levels.
Across the board, grade-point averages and comprehension skills are all improved when students are involved in extracurricular activities.
This comes as no surprise for Rim Country educators who have these students in their classrooms throughout the year.
"What we're talking about is the Mozart effect," said Karen Phylow, music educator at Rim Country Middle School and former math teacher. "It's been proven time and time again that consistent music education improves brain function. The vast majority of students in the higher-level math classes, and the advanced placement classes, are music students.
Phylow compared the process of learning to read music to that of learning a foreign language.
"It's just as challenging and stimulating to the brain as learning Spanish or Italian," she said.
But Phylow explained that such extracurricular activities have benefits that go far beyond the final report card.
"Musicianship is something that becomes a life-long skill. There's always an opportunity to use music, even into your senior years -- as evidenced by participation in community or church choirs and instrumental ensembles. Just look at the Payson Choral Society. It's a prime example of a music group that has many members in their senior years. It becomes a creative outlet throughout your life."
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Sue Myers said the tax credit program offers a unique opportunity for students and taxpayers.
"There are so many things we can do with the money that we otherwise wouldn't have been able to," she said. "It is the one place in our taxes where we can see where our money is being spent.
One example of where the money goes can be seen in instruments used by students in all area public schools.
"We would not have a handbell program," Phylow said. "The bronze bells were purchased with Credit For Kids money, which allows us to serve more kids. We have large class sizes and we didn't have enough instruments to go around."
Seven music classes at the middle school use the handbells throughout the year.
"It's amazing to me how the bells appeal to junior high kids. The handbells introduce students to the wonder of being in a musical ensemble," Phylow said.
The middle school now owns 3.5 octaves, or 44 bells. Of those, 90 percent were purchased with Credit For Kids funds. Throughout the district, the funds have made it possible for students to have items ranging from violins and clarinets, to uniforms and sporting equipment.
In 2004, district officials estimate that 10 to 12 percent of area residents took advantage of the tax credit, which brought in $205,050. This was an increase from $189,377 in 2003.
Donate by Saturday, Dec. 31
As the deadline for 2005 donations approaches, checks will be physically accepted at the PUSD office, 514 W. Wade Lane, until 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 30. Donations can also be placed in the drop box at the APS office on West Longhorn Road, or in the APS drop box by town hall.
Donations may also be mailed to the Payson School District office at P.O. Box 919, Payson, AZ 85547 (postmarked) by Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005. For more information, call the district office at (928) 474-2070.
To donate to the Pine/Strawberry School District, mail to P.O. Box 1150, Pine, AZ 85544. Call (928) 476-3283 for more information.
Make checks payable to: Payson Unified School District or Pine/Strawberry School District. A receipt for the donation will be mailed back to the taxpayer, so be sure to include a return address.
This year's Credit For Kids goals include: fine arts, sports equipment, team transportation, cultural awareness, career exploration, yearbook, student government, theatrical productions, band instruments, music programs, after-school academic enrichment programs, field trips, technology upgrades and the community stadium project to install artificial turf on Longhorn field.
Other Rim Country schools, both public and private, are also participating in the program. Contact them directly for details.
See the Credit For Kids donation form and school-specific 2006 program goals on page 6B of the Roundup print edition.
Tax Credit also available for Christian school
Through the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, Inc., residents donating money to private schools like Payson Community Christian are eligible for a similar dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their Arizona taxes. Married couples filing jointly can contribute $825. Individual taxpayers can donate $500. The Christian school donation deadline is also Dec. 31. ACSTO uses the money to provide Christian school scholarships. PCCS is located at 213 S. Colcord Road. Call (928) 474-8050.