On any given morning, more than half a million children in the San Antonio area wake up and get ready for school. To put that into perspective, that’s enough kids to fill a line of school buses 59 miles long.

We expect that when these children graduate they’ll have the knowledge and skills needed to get a job and lead productive lives. What they learn and how they learn it is more important than it’s ever been because the world is changing faster than it ever has in history.

Think about this: State demographers tell us that in 12 years, when today’s first graders graduate from college, there could be an additional 1 million people in San Antonio. Our city will change in ways beyond that which we have dreamed.

Let’s look at what has happened in the last 12 years: In 2006, the iPhone had not yet been released, and we’re now into its eighth iteration. And as smartphone technology has evolved, so have robotics in manufacturing, sensors in cars that will soon lead to driverless automobiles, and astounding advances in medicine and communications.

This has created a pressing problem – we must develop a workforce that will be able to meet that change. We must find a way to help the 500,000 local students be ready for our city’s future.

One answer has been STEM education – short for science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s the educational approach that emphasizes the subjects that will help us solve the challenges ahead. We know that only 5.6 percent of U.S. college graduates have STEM degrees, which, compared to 28.1 percent in Germany and 46.7 percent in China, clearly shows that we’re losing the race to our global counterparts. The answer to that problem, however, doesn’t call for more STEM education. It calls for making STEM more accessible and complete, because tomorrow’s workforce needs to be nimble, entrepreneurial, critical thinking, and creative in their problem-solving.

That’s where the arts come in.

It’s been proven that the arts lead to higher graduation rates, which lead to STEM careers. So, many communities have added “art” to the STEM approach, converting the STEM idea to STEAM.

Consider the numbers: According to the University of Florida, when those 500,000 kids enter their classrooms, adding arts to their curriculum will make them four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement.

What’s more, according to the University of Maryland, arts students are 29 percent more likely to apply to a postsecondary institution and 21 percent more likely to have continued their education two years after high school. Arts students also apply to slightly more colleges, on average, than non-arts students, and they pursue STEM majors at rates similar to their non-arts peers. There’s no measurable career opportunity cost.

It’s no wonder that 93 percent of Americans believe the arts are vital to providing a well-rounded education.

What does makes me wonder, though, is why our State Legislature has been so slow to respond to the obvious? This past year, lawmakers in Austin cut state funding for the arts by 28 percent. That’s not the direction we want to follow, especially for the underserved students in our city, many of whom are Latino and black. These children live and study in the poorest schools and have an inherent disadvantage. They are the ones who need arts funding the most.

Arts funding is our clarion call.

In the next 12 years, do we want to be a city stumbling to catch up with a trend that has long begun, or a city on the cusp of meeting its full potential?

The closing bell for our schoolchildren is approaching, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that they’ll be armed with the skills needed to thrive in a world we can only imagine.

The key is arts funding and a move from a STEM approach to learning to a more well-rounded STEAM approach.

The call to action is a call to your state and federal legislators to insist that the arts be funded and incorporated in our children’s education. Our city’s future depends on it.

Esteban López

Esteban López

Dr. Esteban López is a practicing physician. He serves as chief medical officer and Southwest Texas market president for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Follow him on Twitter @DrEstebanLopez.