The Reality of Federal Arts Education Policy. Well, Sort Of.

Sometimes the very ingredients that offered success in one political and economic climate become liabilities or less successful when politics and economics change. That’s what’s happened in the arts at the federal policy level. Fifty years ago, America was feeling pretty damn good about itself, post WWII boom had occurred, industry was skyrocketing and we were going to the moon. If we could do that, we, as a society, could do anything. This was the political outlook on American life in the early 60s. In reality, there was great discrimination towards anybody who wasn’t white both in law and in societal mores, women weren’t in politics or the workforce, poverty in inner cities and rural areas was acute and schools were segregated. But, the perception was that we were “Camelot” economically and socially on the rise. It was into this environment that the National Endowment for the Arts was born to give us world-class institutions that could compete with the great museums, operas, ballets and symphonies of Europe and Asia.

We built an industry based on this premise with the help of major foundations like Ford who supported infrastructure and gave form and organizational structure to institutions. We focused on specialization, creating training programs for administrators and artists to fill the jobs and carry us forward. We did the same thing in education developing associations for arts teachers with standards and credentials and an entire industry of teaching artists. This was all good. This was professionalizing the field. It was necessary.

But politics and politicians are fickle. Politics follows the rules of physics and the pendulum having swung in one direction, returns to swing equally in the opposite direction. In the 80s, the arts were no longer viewed by federal policy makers as an opportunity for Americans to rise to a higher level of intellectualism but as elitist, something the average American didn’t participate in. We had separated “artists” from those individuals in our communities who were making art but not making a living at making art. The arts were no longer bi-partisan but perceived by conservative Republicans, for their own political purposes, as liberal and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Politicians competed with each other about who was most “like the average guy or gal.” Populism became a guiding principle, even as economic policies under Reagan began to whittle away at the American middle class. In education policy, we became one more special interest group vying for the attention and resources with all other curriculum areas.

If I were giving an advocacy lecture, I’d say we focused too much on the “top down” supporters and not enough on the “bottom up” supporters. We never made the case with the US Department of Education or Congress that the arts were as important to an education of a child as learning to read or write. This is where our own battles within the arts community of integration and arts instruction did not serve us well with policy makers. As one Congressional staffer told me recently, “arts people seem to not be able to come into the policy arena with any clear objectives.” Part of that is that we couldn’t agree among ourselves and there was no clear leadership placing the education agenda above the inside politics of the arts.

Perception and reality get all confused in the political arena.There is a perception that education is a local issue; that policies are determined locally and funds come primarily from local property taxes and state funds. This is also the reality. Well, sort of. The reality is that the federal government through the US Department of Education (DOE) designs education policies and programs that have a huge impact on state and local education decision-makers. Because any attempts to have a real education policy with a national curriculum and control are so unpopular, the USDOE doesn’t have the authority granted by Congress, to dictate educational policies. Instead, as with many federal programs, they use the money carrot. The federal government can’t force local schools to act a certain way but it can withhold funding if they don’t. Or the feds can create new programs and provide huge sums of money for them to incentivise actions at the local level. If No Child Left Behind (NCLB, the Elementary and Secondary School Act) didn’t include any funding from the feds to state education departments, do you think anyone would care what the bill had to say?

Where does all this leave us in arts education? We know that we’ve seen a steady decline since the mid 80s in the numbers of students receiving at least one class in the arts per week. (Read Nick Rabkin’s report). We’ve seen local districts scramble to “teach to the test” as a result of NCLB. Since we have no test to find out how your music class enhanced your math skills, the arts are out in the cold. We now have a new administration that seems to have no greater creative solutions to education than the one that created NCLB. There are no arts incentives for major USDOE programs like Race to the Top. There is hope for the arts in the Common Core language but it’s not specific or intentional. But we can sneak in there if state and local advocates lead the way in their school districts.

I am convinced that a successful national arts education policy will be one that meets the goals and objectives of the Department of Education and Congressional education committee leadership. In this sense, it’s not really a national arts education policy but it is a policy where the arts are an integral part of a national education policy. The argument that every student needs to have art for art sake hasn’t and isn’t going to work in this climate. Going back to the research of Howard Gardner about how children learn and what keeps kids in school come closer to arguments that policy makers understand. Using the arts as a tool to teach other subjects and experience the world around us in the lower grades and moving into specific arts instruction as a student matures and has developed artistic interest are strategies that have been, and again could be, successful.

Advocacy at the federal level is paramount just as state and local arts advocates must work on the local level. We have to make the arts part of the carrot. To do this, we have to give up industry infighting, play at the 30,000 feet level and change our language from arts education to education. Our partners need to be math, science, physical education, social studies, other curriculum advocates, child advocates and school reformers. Our reach needs to extend to national associations of chief school officers, superintendents, school boards, teachers’ unions, associations and accreditation entities. This is a big and full-time job that will take strategic planning, resources, lobbying efforts and a willingness on the part of all the arts community to say, “we’ll give up our special interest to get our foot in the door.” We, the arts people, might not even be the right people to do this work. We’ve never played that game at the federal level. Until we do, arts at the local level remain vulnerable, with policies changing every time a supportive administrator or school board member leaves their post.