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A New Year for Arts Ed

As 2009 drew to a close, educators, battle weary from economic budget cutbacks, faced a new year of uncertainty and instability.  Those in arts education are particularly vulnerable to becoming a casualty of budget battles, as the arts are too often perceived as educationally expendable. In California, for example, individual districts were given the option of “sweeping” the State Block Grants for Visual and Performing Arts and using the money in areas other than arts education.  This allowance by the California legislature erased all recent gains made by arts education proponents.  In schools that are designated as low performance institutions, math, science and language arts receive the lion ‘s share of funding and attention.

 In August of 2009, however, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a letter in support of the arts in K-12 education.  Content indicated that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act defined the arts as a core subject in K-12 curricula.  This single piece of information is key in establishing validity for creating and maintaining arts programs in public schools.  While the emphasis of No Child Left Behind and now, Duncan ‘s Race to the Top require standardized assessment results, the recognition of the arts as a core subject illuminates the importance of arts education as recognized by the federal government.  

     Duncan ‘s letter also indicated that this spring, the Department of Education ‘s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) plans to initiate a national survey to assess the condition of arts education in grades K-12. Classroom teachers as well as arts specialists will be asked about their programs and resources.  Statistics currently indicate that little more than half of the nation ‘s elementary students receive regular instruction in either visual art or music.  Results from the 2010 survey will be released in 2011 and the results will be used   to help practicioners and policy makers to make more informed decisions about arts education.

     With the recognition of arts education as a core subject, attention will need to be focused on appropriate funding for healthy arts programs. States and school districts will need to establish proportional funding for the arts as well as academic subject areas.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides flexibility for states to support the arts.  Schools and districts that receive Title I funds can use a portion of the money to create or maintain an arts program for disadvantaged students.  Title II funding can be used to fund professional development for educators or specialists or to establish strategic partnerships with cultural organizations or non- profits.  There is also funding available through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the Arts. Additionally, districts will need to get creative in seeking and developing fiscal resources and partnerships with businesses and communities.  Current policies and procedures that hamstring districts, such as allowing businesses to advertise, for example, may need to be updated to accommodate ongoing financial needs.

     The arts have a rightful and deserved place in K-12 education.  As well as cultural enrichment, the arts enhance learning in every other curricular area. Arts education provides a level playing field for all students and allows for a true narrowing of the achievement gap. However, unlike academic subjects. standardized assessment is difficult and controversial. The arts lend themselves to authentic assessment and qualitative analysis, neither of which fit the standardized profile. Where there is funding and support there is often a need for accountability. Will Arne Duncan include arts education in his quantitative assessment requirements for America ‘s educational Race to the Top?  What will the cost be in developing partnerships with business?  Is public education ready to change the way it operates to serve the best interest of the students or is 2010 destined to be another year of financial instability and unnecessary failure?  

Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.

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