Signs of Progress Are Evident Despite Budget Cuts

by Janet Eilber

May 22, 2008

The current financial worries in America have created a predictable surge in articles about cuts in state and local budgets that jeopardize the recent hard-won gains in art education. We’re once again seeing various reports about newly established arts programs being “revamped” (eviscerated) and heated arguments such as whether school systems should give up physical education or the music program.

It’s enough to make you think that all of the incremental but important achievement of the last few years has been undone, and that in the time it takes to say “subprime mortgage crisis,” arts education advocacy efforts are back to square one. But supporters of arts learning can take heart. There are subtle signs of progress.

The Washington Post article “You Gotta Have Art” harks back to the days when arts education supports were begging for “hard evidence” of the positive effects of arts learning. One measurement of advancement emerged from the scientific research initially reported in these pages in April.

Three years ago, the Dana Foundation initiated “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” a research project by a consortium of neuroscientists at seven leading universities on how studying the arts might influence the brain’s ability to concentrate and learn in academic areas. The full report on the initial findings of strong links—“tight correlations”—was released in March. Dr. Michael S. Gazzaniga, who coordinated the research teams, follows up with insight into these findings in an interview.

Although neuroscientists are careful not to claim to have found proof of causation, there is general agreement in the education arena that enough correlation has been discovered to move on to the next steps. This is progress that must not be undone by yo-yo budgeting.

Important growth is also evident in public opinion. Efforts such as the arts resource audit created by the Kennedy Center early in this decade are paying off. The Independent Weekly story “Art School” gives a detailed report on this process, in which communities come together to assess and develop their arts education assets. This type of project raises awareness, connects diverse community groups and develops local pride and ownership of arts issues. Recent surveys show that a greater number of parents, educators and legislators would like to see arts learning as part of the school day. The issue is now less about whether it should happen and more about how to make it happen —an important shift.

These developments have opened doors for new tactics in arts advocacy. Arts education leaders are turning away from the “us against them” undercurrent that has always existed in the fight for more arts education. Think tanks, task forces and other collaborative strategies are emerging to further the cause of arts in public schools.

Wisconsin state superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster’s op-ed piece, “These Are Exciting Times for School Art,” describes one of these emerging strategies: a task force created by Burmaster and the state lieutenant governor in order to strengthen arts education in the state. This task force will be made up of more than a band of loyal arts education advocates lobbying to get their foot in the door. Arts educators and business and government leaders will all be at the table—hosted by public education. That is significant.

The Education Leaders Institute (ELI), a new initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has a similar structure. Each three-day institute brings together teams from five states to consider new designs that might better secure arts learning in their states. Sarah Cunningham, the energetic and insightful head of education for the NEA, says that ELI is actively seeking teams that include diverse voices—representatives from government, business, education and the arts—who will analyze obstacles, gain fresh perspectives, discover new allies and form collaborative strategies. The NEA plans to host teams from all 50 states in the next five years.

Gains in top-of-the-line scientific research, broader public involvement, and new high-level conversations are evidence of the strength of our position. The financial climate may have delivered some painful blows to school arts budgets in recent months, but we are well-positioned to make our case.