Arts Education Funders Coalition
Grantmakers in the Arts began its work to enhance the arts in federal education policy in 2012 when it created the Arts Education Funders Coalition, an interest group within GIA that is open to funders with an arts education passion and portfolio, whether they are members of GIA or not. Led by a small advisory committee, we contracted with Penn Hill Group, a Washington, D.C., policy and lobbying firm with expertise in education.
With Penn Hill’s help, the coalition created a federal K–12 arts education agenda, which will make the arts more explicit within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and programs of the US Department of Education. If successful, this will encourage local districts to utilize federal dollars to support arts programs and be tools for local arts advocates to address inequities in arts education across districts and buildings. From other angles, we are investigating how the arts can play a role in President Barack Obama’s emphasis on Preschool for All and other programs, including Education Corps, High School Redesign, Head Start, and the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s collaboration in implementing the Second Chance Act.
Grantmakers in the Arts enters these efforts alongside our many partners who have been actively promoting arts education at the federal level for decades. We collaborate closely with Americans for the Arts, the Arts Education Partnership, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Arts Education Working Group, and the National Endowment for the Arts. We are inspired to do this work because arts funders are co-investors with government in public education and seek to have a presence in policy development. Public policy advocacy and development is risky work and should be looked at as risk capital. What we know is that when investments in public policies are successful, dollars have a very high rate of return to our communities and our schools. All children, no matter where they go to school or the color of their skin or the language they speak, deserve a great education in the arts.
Programs Are Not Policy
Why Legislative Advocacy Is More Important Than You Might Think
At the 2011 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in San Francisco, I participated in a salon focusing on K–12 arts education. We warmed up the session by asking funders what would be the single most important thing they would like to change about arts education. You know, the proverbial “magic wand” question: “If you could wave your magic wand, how would K–12 arts education change?” In every single instance save one, the answer was a variant of equitable access to high-quality arts education for all students. In essence, the single greatest concern of these funders was one of policy, as opposed to practice or program.
This group could have aimed for anything — better assessment, improved curriculum, more teachers, better professional development, research, new standards — but instead chose something that was a matter of policy. Importantly, the vast majority of funders in that room, and throughout the funding community, are funding programs. It is exactly this disconnect that the GIA Arts Education Funders Coalition seeks to address by directly investing in a policy and advocacy initiative at the federal level.
It’s no secret that the arts funding community is ambivalent about supporting advocacy, with the greatest sensitivity reserved for lobbying. And it’s not only the funders but also the arts and arts education organizations and their boards that remain supremely skittish about the prospect of lobbying when it comes to policy. (Interestingly, while those arts organizations that can afford lobbyists have no problem lobbying for a budget line or earmark, few deploy lobbyists for issues related to arts education policy.)
Many avoid this area of work because they believe it may result in the loss of their nonprofit status. Some funders strictly prohibit funding of such activities. Those who have been hard at work in advocacy often hear the complaint that “no one will pay for it.” Historically, arts and arts education advocacy organizations have remained woefully underfunded, with a rather profound history of organizational failure. There are notable exceptions and growing instances of effective local and state work, particularly in California.
It is important to recognize that reluctance in this arena is driven by a lack of understanding about what is and is not allowed by law, a desire for the sort of concrete and visible impact that direct service funding provides (making sure a child receives instruction in the arts), a fear that advocacy and policy may be contentious, and a lack of appetite for the relatively longer-term arch of development and success ordinarily associated with advocacy and policy work. There are those who believe that the prospect of success in this arena is a reach, if not an overreach. Others fail to see the critical connection between policy and practice.
Over the course of my career, which has included work as a teaching artist, consultant for foundations and organizations, chief salaried officer at a regional arts education organization, and a host of other assorted and sundry efforts, I have directly witnessed the good to great work in programs that have in some instances transformed entire schools, and sometimes large districts, blown completely out of the water by changes in policy. I have also seen the disconnect between programs and policy play out in fundamental ways: everyone wants to see all kids get a well-rounded education that includes the arts, but people often conflate their efforts in programs with policy change. People love to talk about going to scale, but ultimately scale can never be gained without shifts in policy. This sort of confusion is almost always a recipe for disappointment.
Programs are not policy.
The red thread connecting federal, state, and local education policy is critical. Let’s take a peek at a prime example or two. The first involves federal funding for programs in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math). Over the recent past the US Department of Education has funded major competitive grants programs in STEM. The program guidelines were fairly strict in scoping the work around STEM subjects only. These programs were developed from a policy perspective. The policy was to stimulate high-quality instructional programs in these particular subjects.
After the STEM train had left the station — loaded with lots of cash, I might add — the arts education field sought to insert the arts into STEM, craftily amending the acronym to read as STEAM. Unfortunately, it’s been catch-up ever since. Interestingly, the catch-up is primarily via a programmatic approach, as in the creation of STEAM programs. Let’s prove that the arts belong with STEM! This game of catch-up is depressing. I have often felt that catching up is all we ever do when it comes to arts education (notable exceptions excluded). It’s part of what you get when you aren’t doing the work in policy, ultimately creating a balanced approach to this effort.
The multi-billion-dollar Race to the Top initiative from the US DOE is also illustrative of what happens when major federal policy initiatives are missing the “A” in STEAM. Here, the US DOE has held the largest-scale school improvement and reform initiatives in memory, and the arts were nowhere to be found. What is more, the guidelines in the largest early rounds were written in such as way as to discourage applicant state departments of education from including the arts in their proposals.
In each of these instances, a world of difference could have been struck by the simple addition of a few words in the guidelines, such as “can also include the arts.”
Here, the connection from federal to state to local districts and schools is undeniable. Some say money is policy. These examples certainly prove that particular point, and the lost opportunities are something from which we should all commit to learning.
The GIA Arts Education Funders Coalition is an important step forward in that it puts the national association of arts grantmakers where it should be: directly engaging in policy advocacy at the federal level. It’s not something to be left solely to grantees, but rather an important moment for the funders themselves to have some “skin in the game.” With a well-constructed policy agenda, growing membership, strong leadership, and an important partner in Penn Hill, a Capitol Hill lobbying and government relations firm, this coalition is well designed to ensure that the arts are reflected in major federal policy initiatives.
Ultimately the aim is to create an important virtuous circle connecting policy to programs, thus avoiding having to play catch-up to policies that have a negative impact on the arts education programs so many work so hard to develop and sustain. For those who dream the dream of quality arts for every child, this is a train you might really want to jump aboard. Another way to look at it might be: do you want to fight this fight with one hand tied behind your back?
Arts Education Funders Coalition: A Funder’s Perspective
The Performing Arts Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation began exploring deeper investments in arts education in 2006, in partnership with our Education Program colleagues. The first thing we wanted to know was whether California students were receiving the arts education required by state law. The comprehensive Unfinished Canvas series of reports the foundation commissioned from education researchers at SRI International underlined severe gaps in the provision of sequential, standards-based arts education to K–12 public school students across California. There is a tremendous difference in what is happening in schools and what is called for by state policies. We found, for example, that 89 percent of California schools fail to provide standards-based instruction in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts, and that elementary school students in particular are deprived of opportunities to engage in the arts. We recognize that what we have here is an education issue, not just an arts issue. We believe that not only can a well-rounded arts education inspire future artists, audience members, and arts patrons, it also can improve the school experience for students, engage them in a variety of ways, and enhance learning outcomes.
As a result of the SRI research, Hewlett embarked on making a series of investments in San Francisco Bay Area arts education organizations delivering in-school, after-school, and out-of-school programs as well as building teacher capacity. We added to our portfolio a core group of policy and advocacy grantees operating at the state level, including the California Alliance for Arts Education and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Our assumption at the time — which we believe still holds true — was that supporting both programs and advocacy at the local and regional level, coupled with top-down advocacy efforts at the state level, creates positive momentum. This in turns creates more likelihood for success — and the proliferation of program delivery, to make sure that every child is served — at every level. Taking our assumption a step further, we added our first national arts education grantee, Americans for the Arts, to support their efforts both in researching and tracking policy strategies in Washington, D.C., and working with the corporate sector on the importance of a creative workforce.
In 2011 the Performing Arts Program released a new strategic framework, and for the first time, arts education is more visible as one of three priority areas of focus. The associated strategies do not reflect new work, but rather solidify their importance in working toward the goal: California students have equitable access to multidisciplinary arts education opportunities. Our three strategies are:
- Support effective K–12 in-school, after-school, and out-of-school programs
- Advance research and advocacy to improve state and local policy
- Foster world-class pre-professional performing arts training opportunities
As we have continued to add policy and advocacy grantees to our portfolio, we recognize the value that strategic policy and advocacy efforts at the federal level can have on state and local policies. This is why we are supportive of GIA’s Arts Education Funders Coalition. For the first time, funders who have been supporting arts education in their geographic regions for years are coming together to add their collective voices to help develop national education policy strategies, all as part of an effort to increase in-school learning in and through the arts for every child in this country. If not now, when?