In ESSA, Arts Are Part of ‘Well-Rounded Education’

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 15, 2015 7 min read
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Arts education advocates breathed a sigh of relief last Thursday when the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes language that cements states’ obligation to support arts education programs in public schools, became the new federal education law of the land.

Several proposals for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act floated earlier this year did not specifically call for funding the creative disciplines. But the Every Student Succeeds Act includes the arts alongside math and language arts in its definition of a “well-rounded education.” (Check page 807.) That ensures that arts education programs and teachers are eligible to receive federal funds through provisions such as Title I, which supports disadvantaged students, and Title II, which supports teachers.

Having the arts included in that definition is a “win,” said Patricia Franklin, the president of the National Art Education Association.

“It’s important that language including the arts was not only maintained, but was specified in some cases. It’s not marginalized as much,” Franklin said.

The arts also make appearances in other parts of ESSA. The new law offers funding specifically for integrating arts into STEM, short for science, technology, engineering, and math, education. It also includes a $20 million grant program for arts education, known as the Assistance for Arts Education grant program, which replaces a similar program from the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the Every Student Succeeds Act also gives states more flexibility in how they allocate resources to low-performing schools and set accountability measures than before, which means arts education advocates will now be turning to states to ensure that federal funds actually make their way to eligible arts programs.

NCLB’s Mixed Arts Legacy

The Every Student Succeeds Act replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law 14 years ago.

While No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on testing and accountability has often been criticized for pushing nontested subjects, including the arts, to the sideline, it did include the arts as a “core subject.” Any time states’ obligation to provide or support “core subjects” was referenced, arts education was included.

Arts educators did report that they had less time with students as the No Child Left Behind era progressed. The U.S. Department of Education released a letter in 2004 emphasizing that arts is a core subject.

Still, “everyone understands the power that a definition had for the arts in No Child Left Behind,” said Narric W. Rome, the vice president of government affairs and arts education at Americans for the Arts. “It allowed recognition for the arts in all the other titles ...Having a defined set of core subjects meant the focus shouldn’t be just on reading and math because they have tests.”

(Rome took a look at the bill and traced the development of the bill over the year in a blog post at Americans for the Arts.)

Earlier versions of a new federal education bill, however, did not include a list of core subjects. That worried advocates, who believed art disciplines could fall by the wayside if they were not specifically called out.

In the end, the Every Student Succeeds Act’s authors did away with the “core subjects” language altogether. (After years of pushback against the Common Core, the word core had become loaded.) Instead, states are held responsible for a “well-rounded” education. And that well-rounded education specifically includes the arts.

That means arts will be included in everything from Title I funding to state accountability reports, which are required to demonstrate how states are providing a “well-rounded” education. The new law also clarifies that arts teachers are eligible for professional development funds from Title II of the law, which had been a subject of confusion under the previous law.


The acronym STEM has often been broadened to include the arts in casual usage: Schools advertise STEAM programs (the A is for arts) and entire organizations exist to advocate for arts integration. Now, the connection between arts and STEM has been acknowledged in federal law: ESSA provides support to schools that integrate subjects, including the arts, into STEM.

Rome said that change came as a surprise. The congresswoman who proposed the addition, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, had proposed the amendment several times before with no results.

Franklin of the National Art Education Association said that the new law will help support the kinds of projects many schools and organizations are already working on. “So many STEM projects include some design or arts element. It’s been there all along. But it wasn’t recognized as something that could be addressed specifically for a grant.”

Defining the Arts

When arts education advocates are discussing “the arts,” they are generally referring to five disciplines: music, visual art, theater, dance, and, in recent years, media arts. All five are included in the National Core Arts Standards, which are used as a model in many states.

ESSA does not specifically define the arts as including each of those disciplines. Americans for the Arts’ Rome said that the Senate is expected to include a definition of the arts that lists all five disciplines in a follow-up report.

Without that definition, there’s a fear that some art programs are more likely to get funded than others.

But that’s not a concern for music education: In the new law, music is listed as part of a well-rounded education alongside the arts for the first time.

Chris Woodside, the assistant executive director of the National Association for Music Education, said his organization lobbied to have music specifically listed in the definition, separate from other disciplines. “Having music called out in the definition of what they call well-rounded education provides us with clarity in making sure that, intentionally or unintentionally, you’re not going to have music left out.”

“The arts are very amorphous,” Woodside said. “It might mean something different to a school board member or principal. But most people know what music means.”

Advocates for dance and theater, in particular, worried that separating music from the other disciplines could have a negative impact on funding for their programs.

Susan McGreevy-Nichols, the executive director of the National Dance Education Organization, said that while she is pleased by the overall implications of the bill, she is concerned that some policymakers will see “arts” and “music” listed as core subjects and think immediately that that includes just visual art and music. “They’re not going to envision dance, theater, and now media arts,” she said.

“This wonderful bill is now kind of a stamp of approval for the arts disciplines to use federal funds for professional development and Title I,” she said. “But everyone’s vying for that money.”

Jim Palmarini, the director of educational policy at the Educational Theatre Association, said his organization, which represents theater teachers, would be “vigilant” and aim to “make sure that theater, dance, and media arts are important in this process, too.”

States Next

The ESSA notably gives states more flexibility about what they include in accountability reports and more. (Check out Politics K-12 for more on the implications of the bill and for the most up-to-date information about the progression of the bill.)

Each state will choose how it resources arts education compared to the other components of a “well-rounded” education.

That means arts education advocates will be focused on making sure the available federal funds actually make it to arts programs.

“I see this as an opportunity for state and local grassroots efforts,” said the Educational Theatre Association’s Palmarini. “The federal footprint has done a 360. It has really ceded responsibility for the education of children to state and local decisionmakers.”

“We need to make sure that administrators understand that the arts are part of the well-rounded curriculum and therefore can receive some of this money that comes down,” he said.

Americans for the Arts’ Rome agreed. For instance, he said, ESSA means that arts education could be used as a strategy for improving low-performing schools, supported by Title I funds. But a state would have to clarify that that use of funding is permissible and choose to use funds to support the programs.

“They might pick and choose and decide that the arts aren’t important,” he said.

But, he said, the challenge of advocating for support and clarity at the state level faces all subject areas, not just the arts.

“It took a while for the outcome of No Child Left Behind to be realized. One possibility is that, instead of one federal problem, you could have 50 state problems in each of these categories,” Rome said. “Time will certainly tell.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.