How many times have you heard this lament — “we all know the arts are the first to be cut when school budgets are tight”? It is so often repeated that it has evolved from conventional wisdom to sacred mythology. In fact, it is almost required that every fundraising appeal from every cultural organizations must begin with this sentence. Sadly, much of the nonprofit arts sector has become co-dependent with this status of victimhood. It is as if we actually prefer providing marginalized programs to often marginalized students, rather than leading the charge for sweeping and systemic change. It’s time to grow up and start taking “yes” for an answer.
My friend Bob Morrison is a local school board member in New Jersey and leading national advocate for arts and music in our schools. He makes the case that the more we describe cuts to the arts as “normal” or “typical,” we actually undermine our cause.
In fact, arts education is an enduring American value. Parents value it. Kids love it. Educators know it makes for a more impressive and effective school or school district. If there truly is an “anti-arts” bogeyman, I have yet to find him. From Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles, large urban districts are making major investments in expanding arts education. In Los Angeles County, over 65 of the 81 local school districts have made a formal commitment to increasing arts learning.
After years of high-stakes accountability that narrowed the curriculum, the newly reauthorized federal education law recognizes – and puts funding behind – the value of a “well-rounded curriculum.” Research is showing the many ways quality arts education can contribute to essential goals such as student engagement, school climate, and parent involvement.
To be clear, all students still do not have equal access to arts education. Overall per-pupil funding levels and family socio-economic status remain the strongest predictors for the scope of local arts education. Those students who would benefit the most, too often receive the least. But the trend lines are pointing in the right direction in many communities across the nation. In California, there is actually a pressing shortage of qualified arts teachers since so many districts are now hiring.
I wish our field would find more opportunities to declare victories and celebrate success. What if our fundraising letters said something like, “Thanks to you we can keep up the progress and ensure all kids receive a quality arts education.” Let’s take all our good intentions to scale. Lasting systemic change should be the goal, not just a few new musical instruments for a few needy kids.
Where can we start? I suggest we each find a way to gently push back the next time one of our board members or generous donors asserts, “It’s too bad there are no arts programs in schools anymore.” You might reply, “Actually, there is some exciting progress for arts education these days…”. That can help shift the conversation from a charity/scarcity mindset to one of real impact and leverage. I suggest the new question should be, “How can we best support or build upon the progress underway?”