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Texas Museums Hit as Schools Take Fewer Field Trips

Sophia Lara and her father Ricardo look at a display in the dairy processing plant at the Austin Children's Museum.
Photo by Callie Richmond for the Texas Tribune
Sophia Lara and her father Ricardo look at a display in the dairy processing plant at the Austin Children's Museum.

As Texas schools whittle their budgets in response to the state’s multibillion dollar education cuts, they are eyeing every expenditure, from athletics to busing and even field trips.

Museums, symphonies and other cultural institutions, already suffering from the economic downturn, may be an unexpected casualty of state education budget cuts, said Bruce Esterline, vice president for grants of the Meadows Foundation. His organization, which supports philanthropic efforts statewide in areas like education and health, has seen an increase in the number of grant proposals from cultural arts groups that cited reduced revenue from school activities this year.

State lawmakers last year cut $4 billion in general revenue from public education plus $1.4 billion in discretionary grants for programs like pre-kindergarten and remedial tutoring.

Schools’ budgetary constraints have “really put a damper” on visits to museums, said Jacki Womack, the booking services manager for ArtReach-Dallas, an organization that coordinates tours for several cultural agencies in the Dallas area. This year, instead of booking visits for each grade level, she said, many elementary and middle schools are opting to take all of their students on one trip. Other districts may choose to follow the model of Cypress-Fairbanks, the third-most populous district in the state, which for years has not offered any field trips at all, instead relying on in-school presentations to keep expenses down.

Pascual Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, the state’s fourth-most populous, said there had been a significant decrease in the number of field trips for middle and high school students. He said elementary teachers usually select free destinations like parks or the Alamo and then raise money through parent-teacher associations for transportation.

Private fund-raising has helped cushion some of the blow. Many cultural groups have corporate and individual underwriters for school visits that can defray most of the costs.

Schools also receive financing for cultural activities through the Texas Commission on the Arts. Jim Bob McMillan, the commission’s deputy director, said the demand for school programming money has grown to an average request of about $24,000 in the first quarter of the current fiscal year from about $13,000 last year. But the commission’s budget was cut by 56 percent last year, and McMillan said it had been able to award an average of only $2,200 to the schools.

Anthony Corroa, the executive director of the Austin Symphony, which reaches more than 90,000 students a year through performances and in-school presentations, said budget cuts have not yet affected his institution, which receives financing for music education in schools through many sources.

The Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, however, has definitely felt the impact of school budget cuts, said Linda Murdock, the museum’s director of sales. The museum has earmarked more of its financing for scholarships than in any other year, she said, and it has received several donations specifically for subsidizing field trips.

But in many cases, those dollars do not cover transportation, she added, and some of the schools cannot afford to transport the students from the school to the museum.

When that happens, she said, the museum offers in-school programs.

“We’re still reaching students,” Murdock said. “But we’re reaching a few less than we did last year.”

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.