As a serious student of ballet, I am deeply concerned about the fate of arts education in America’s public schools. Since the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act during President George W. Bush’s administration, schools have focused on basic-skills-building at the expense of teaching young people about the arts. Now that the economy has tanked, broad-based arts education is almost nonexistent.
It shouldn’t be. As research conducted by the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for the Arts has demonstrated, the benefits of arts education are cumulative and far-reaching. In addition to improving overall academic performance, the arts encourage critical thinking, creative problem-solving, effective communication, and teamwork. By fostering self-expression, they also help bolster confidence and keep students engaged in school, reducing the chance that they will drop out. More important, perhaps, giving students the chance to experience the arts fulfills a cultural commitment common to all advanced countries: that art be valued in and of itself.
I will graduate from college this spring knowing that my 14 years of ballet training contributed greatly to my academic success. I’ve also been able to witness firsthand the power of the arts as a tool for learning, most recently as a participant in Duke University’s Literacy Through Photography, or LTP, program. LTP encourages students to explore their world by photographing scenes from their lives and using those images as a catalyst for written expression. Inspired by what they capture on film, and by this novel process of exploration, students who previously had struggled to get ideas onto paper began to fill the pages in their journals with relative ease.
Yet federal funding for arts education has always been a tough sell, with a few notable exceptions. In 1933, the New Deal’s Civil Works Administration created the Public Works of Art Program, a relief effort that employed artists. It was the federal government’s first foray into public support for the arts. Despite the prevailing assumption of that time that the arts were the province of the wealthy or talented, many of these Depression-era artists and their work found their way into the public schools, inspiring a generation of students.
Three decades later, the much overdue creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1965, reflected an increased awareness of the importance of teaching arts in school. Unfortunately, the economic downturn of the 1970s undid much of the progress made to that time in advancing federal arts funding. Our current economic crisis will, I fear, result in further losses for arts education as many worthwhile programs battle for scarce federal funds.
President Barack Obama has said he is committed to ensuring that our schools are adequately funded. Now is the time to insist that such funding is adequate only if the arts are not left behind. But in the intensifying debate over the best use of public dollars, persuading Congress to provide a legislative fix may be a pipe dream.
It’s time to focus on alternatives to federal programs. Public funding for arts at the local level must be part of the deliberations as decisionmakers modify taxes, fees, and other budgetary policies. Advocates across the country are developing creative funding solutions for the arts that must be extended to include arts education. In Tennessee, for example, the Tennessee Arts Commission receives a percentage of the revenue gained from the sale of specialty license plates. This has helped generate millions in grant funding, with $4.8 million stemming from such sales awarded last year alone to museums, theaters, and other arts causes, including arts education in public schools.
Linking revenue streams to the revenue source has been another effective strategy for arts funding, one that should now be extended to include arts education. Emphasizing the relationship between the arts and cultural tourism, for example, could provide arts education money through the allocation process for hotel and other “tourism taxes.” And this would also avoid placing an additional financial burden on residents.
Public dollars that support arts education are well spent. The current financial turmoil makes this a crucial time to work toward creative funding solutions at the local level to supplement federal money and establish sustainable, long-term support for arts education. As surely as children need good nutrition for their growing bodies, they also should have daily servings of the arts to nourish their hearts and minds and spark their imaginations.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as Arts Education—Hold the Applause, Pass the Collection Plate