Arts Education Policy

The Importance of Acting Now to Improve State and Local Programs

Alex Nock

As the policy landscape changes, and dedicated federal funding streams become a thing of the past, Grantmakers in the Arts, through the Arts Education Funders Coalition, is looking toward the future to identify policy opportunities to promote equitable access to arts education in public schools. An essential question for this work is how to utilize and enhance existing federal education resources to include a systemic focus on arts education that benefits state and local programs.

The Problem and the Necessity of Action

One question you may have is, why now? Arts education hasn’t really caught fire with federal education policymakers, and Congress and the Obama administration are struggling to pass legislation — even bills that are central to the operation of the federal government. And where the federal government has acted, it has been at the expense of arts education. Recent research shows that there has been a significant decrease in the number of arts courses and programs offered to students in public school, particularly in low-income communities. Instead of responding with increased investment to fill the gaps in state and local funding for arts education, the federal government has decreased its commitment to the arts, eliminating dedicated funding and jeopardizing the existence of the Arts in Education program. The answer is very simply that we have to act now — or continue to watch policy support for arts education further erode.

While the new culture of competitive grants and fear of earmarks has left members of Congress reluctant to direct funding toward subject-specific programs, there are opportunities in Washington to promote arts education. A critical first step will be developing new relationships with those in Congress and the administration who understand the power of arts in education and can become true champions of good policy.

The Arts Education Funders Coalition

Grantmakers in the Arts created the Arts Education Funders Coalition to keep arts and education funders informed and get their input on federal policy opportunities and other arts education projects. A coalition advisory committee is working with Penn Hill Group to develop policy recommendations for key federal education laws and programs and educating policy makers on these recommendations. The following are some of the moving pieces in Washington that the coalition is targeting:

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization. Overdue for congressional attention, ESEA reauthorization (more commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act) is largely stalled this year, with a contentious and party-divided Congress struggling to compromise in an election year. But in the next Congress, particularly if President Obama is reelected, there may finally be momentum to pass a bill. The coalition is using this stall to develop policy recommendations that can be advanced once ESEA conversations start in earnest in 2013.
  • ESEA waivers. As Congress failed to reauthorize ESEA, the Obama administration went ahead with its own reform plans — granting waivers to states releasing them from their responsibilities under No Child Left Behind in exchange for adopting several key education reforms, including college- and career-ready standards, enhanced teacher evaluation, and accountability systems refocused on the lowest-performing schools in the state. Eleven states have had their ESEA waiver applications accepted, with twenty-six more, plus the District of Columbia, which is currently seeking approval. This is taking a lot of attention in D.C. right now and will certainly affect how the next Congress approaches ESEA reauthorization.
  • Spending for FY 2013. Congressional action on the FY 2013 appropriations is not likely until after the November elections, meaning that Congress will have to act fast to avoid budget sequestration, the automatic spending cuts written into last year’s Budget Control Act that are scheduled to take effect on January 2, 2013. The Budget Control Act also brought us the failed “Supercommittee” that was supposed to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion.

In the current No Child Left Behind law, there are a few emphases on arts education — the arts are named a core academic subject, and this means that arts teachers have to be “highly qualified.” These concepts, which are components of the overall NCLB accountability system, have not made a huge impact on the state of arts education in America, and the next law could do away with the “highly qualified teacher” measure.

Meanwhile, NCLB contains the Arts in Education program, which directs spending for arts education. That program has managed to survive various efforts to cut some of the smaller programs contained in NCLB, but its funding remains in jeopardy on an annual basis. Even with this program maintained, its $25 million funding level limits its ability to systemically drive good arts education policy in our nation’s schools.

Reauthorization efforts have shown, however, that there is interest in promoting arts. The Senate’s bill to reauthorize ESEA contains a program for “Well-Rounded Students.” States could use that funding for arts education, but they would not be required to do so.

As arts advocates, therefore, our work is cut out for us because we lack:

  • Systemic inclusion of arts education in current law;
  • Policymaker awareness of the benefits of arts education; and
  • Understanding and support for arts education in Congress and the administration.

Working to fix those realities will have an impact nationwide. Systemic inclusion of arts education policy in federal law will influence state and local policy and practice — if states have more money to spend on arts education, they will spend it. That means hiring more art teachers, developing curriculum, and providing high-quality arts education opportunities for all students, especially low-income and disadvantaged students. Policy should be driving arts education specifically toward the low-income and minority students, who we know have less access to high-quality arts education in their schools and communities.

Right now, the Arts Education Funders Coalition is being directed by a small advisory committee working to identify opportunities and develop policy options that will resonate with Congress and the administration. Soon we will begin taking these messages to policymakers and working to increase public interest in coalition-supported policies and activities. Members of the coalition receive updates on policy development, and GIA seeks their input for recommendations on implementation strategies. The coalition represents an unprecedented effort to act now to improve and strengthen federal arts education policy.

If you are interested in learning more (or joining), please visit or call 206-624-2312.