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Politics Aside, Educators Fear Impact of Arts-Funding Cuts

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Washington

Critics of federal arts funding argue that the programs have often supported radical--or even immoral--projects, and at best are a luxury the nation cannot afford.

But many educators have a different point of view.

Chris Forehan, the principal of Chavez Elementary School in Norwalk, Calif., recalls reading a myth to a 5th grader who could answer only one question about the story. A few weeks later, after the boy's class learned to interpret the story through movement and dance, he was able to explain exactly what the tale was about.

"When the body moves, the brain remembers," Mr. Forehan said. "That is what we believe now."

Like many schools across the country, Chavez Elementary has no arts, music, or physical-education teachers. Often considered frills, these subjects tend to be the first to get the ax when districts have to cut their budgets.

But teachers and staff members at Mr. Forehan's 580-student school, which is located in a barrio, learned to use dance and opera as an interdisciplinary teaching strategy with a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

They and other educators fear that hundreds of similar projects underwritten by the arts endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities will disappear along with more controversial programs.

Culturally Elite?

During the past decade, the endowments have been the targets of sporadic criticism. But they have become increasingly more vulnerable since Republicans gained a Congressional majority in the 1994 elections.

And the issue is not solely a financial one. Critics complain that the endowments cater largely to a cultural elite, supporting the production of works far outside the mainstream.

In testimony before a House subcommittee last month, Lynne V. Cheney, a former chairwoman of the N.E.H., contended that both endowments have become highly politicized and accused their grantees of playing "intellectual shell games" by promising one thing and delivering another.

"Many academics and artists now see their purpose not as revealing truth or beauty, but as achieving social and political transformations," Ms. Cheney said. "Government should not be funding those whose main interest is promoting an agenda."

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior is one of four Congressional panels holding hearings to determine whether to reauthorize the two federal agencies and whether to cut their current funding levels.

"To say that the N.E.H. is an elitist program makes me mad," said June Chase Hankins, an assistant professor of English who runs a federally funded summer institute for classroom teachers. "This is Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos for goodness sake."

Rosa Smith-Williams has participated in Ms. Hankins's four-week session, as well as two other N.E.H.-sponsored programs.

After attending one of the sessions, she assigned her class the book Bless Me, Ultima, about a young man's initiation into manhood. It is a book she would not have known about had it not been for the program.

"Some of my Hispanic students said, 'This is the first time I've ever read a book about me that I have been assigned to read in school,"' said Ms. Smith-Williams, the chairwoman of the English department at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts in Houston.

"They started talking about themselves and how they, too, have been faced with those kinds of decisions," she said, adding that one student told her it was the first time he ever finished a book.

Involvement in Standards

The humanities endowment received $177 million and the arts agency $167 million in this fiscal year. About $7 million of the arts budget and $13 million of the humanities budget directly support K-12 education programs.

Agency officials, however, point out that other programs benefiting precollegiate educators and students are scattered throughout their budgets. For instance, the N.E.H.-sponsored television documentary "The Civil War" has been used in classrooms throughout the nation.

Douglas Herbert, the director of the arts endowment's arts-in-education program also said his agency's role in improving education extends beyond the individual programs it aids.

The agency, for example, took a leadership role in the development--and funding--of the voluntary national arts standards and the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the arts, which is slated to start in 1997, Mr. Herbert pointed out.

But what the arts endowment points to with pride is one of the activities that got the humanities endowment in trouble. Its sponsorship of voluntary national standards in history have been called the N.E.H.'s Robert Mapplethorpe--a reference to the controversial artist whose work was widely cited by critics of federal support for the arts.

All but lost in the rancor over the history standards has been the endowment's support for the well-received national standards in the arts and geography. It also provided funding for foreign-language benchmarks, which are under development.

Spur to Other Support

Even relatively modest grants for education projects bring in greater support, supporters argue, because the endowments' awards are competitive and require matching funds.

The endowments' programs tend to hold the greatest significance for disadvantaged students and for students and teachers in rural areas.

For the past three years, for example, Mark J. Sokol, a program officer with the nonprofit group Ventures in Education, has worked with at-risk students in New York City. The semester-long program teaches students about design arts, career options in the field, and the relevance of studying such topics as geometry and physics.

Beginning this semester, Mr. Sokol will expand the project, sponsored by the arts endowment, into San Francisco, Washington, rural Arkansas, and the Navajo Nation.

While they focus their attacks on more controversial projects, agency critics do not necessarily agree that programs of high quality would vanish if the endowments were abolished or cut back. Ms. Cheney suggested in her testimony that private support can be generated.

Edwin J. Delattre, the Dean of the College of Education at Boston University, faulted schools and colleges for their failure to pay for such programs.

They "have cut arts and humanities because they don't fully respect arts and humanities," said Mr. Delattre. "They don't have the right priorities."

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