MONTPELIER — Sen. Bernard Sanders met with students from five schools Saturday at Montpelier High School for a town hall meeting before a concert in an effort to bring attention to arts in education.
The schools that participated in the concert included Montpelier High School, Barre City Middle School, Harwood Union High School, Stowe High School, Rice Memorial High School and Bellows Falls Union High School.
In an interview Friday, the Independent Vermont senator said arts in education are important because, speaking as a former athlete, sometimes communities put too little emphasis into other youth activities beyond athletics.
“We have great music programs across the state of Vermont and I just wanted to give the kids an additional opportunity to perform publicly and get a little bit of recognition for what they do,” Sanders said.
He said he is very disturbed by a trend in the U.S. in which music programs are usually the first thing on the chopping block when schools don’t have enough money. He said that’s not fair because kids learn a great deal from music and art; he called it an integral part of their learning experience.
“They learn to work together in a chorus or a choir,” Sanders said. “It’s not easy work. It takes a lot of discipline and I think that it’s a real shame that in schools across this country, including our own state, when schools don’t have the money those are the first programs to be cut.”
He said he hoped that those attending the concert Saturday would take away that music is an important part of a civilized society and it creates beauty.
Sanders said people need to appreciate music teachers for the important contributions they make to society.
“Not everybody can be the quarterback of the New England Patriots,” he said. “We have choirs all over the state, church choirs, school choirs, where people play a very important role for our communities and I want people to recognize that.”
Before the concert Saturday, Sanders met with students in the school’s gym, where he held a town hall meeting for about 20 minutes. Anything was on the table for discussion and students asked questions regarding events in Ferguson, Mo., the history of women’s rights and college education.
One of the students asked Sanders about his musical background. He said he discovered music in elementary school, not from his family. Sanders said he is a fan of classical music and listens to Beethoven when he flies to Washington, D.C., and back.
Another student asked about the racial tension in Ferguson and how it relates to Vermont, which is one of the whitest states in the nation but has a prison population in which African-Americans make up 10 percent.
Sanders urged students not to assume that young blacks are arrested simply for being black.
“There may be some racism, but that’s not a true assumption,” he said. “The rate of black youth unemployment in America is about 30 percent. It turns out in Ferguson it’s even higher than that.”
The senator said the issue is socioeconomic and many people, young African-Americans in this case, don’t have jobs or money and sometimes get themselves in trouble and end up in jail.
He said the answer is not only to make sure that police departments aren’t racist, but to make sure that all youth around the country, regardless of color, have jobs and an education.
After a question about school funding and arts programs being cut, Sanders said when he returns to Washington this week he will work on putting more money into education instead of the military. This was met with a round of applause by the students.
Sanders asked which students were planning to attend college and nearly all of them raised their hands. He then asked them how many were worried about the cost of college and they all raised their hands again.
To address this, he said, he and other members of Congress will introduce legislation that would make public colleges and public universities tuition free.
“If you are in Germany, or Denmark or France, college education is virtually free and in this country it is largely unaffordable,” Sanders said.