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Stop the Patchwork (from Arts Watch)

Kristen Engebretsen

Our patchwork approach to providing arts education has gotta stop!

I recently read an article about a school that won a $25,000 contest by HGTV to redesign their arts room, and it actually left me upset. Why, you ask?

The short answer? I’m tired of the band-aid approach. The stop gap measures.

It’s the same reason I had to stop watching Oprah’s Favorite Things and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. For every deserving person that is honored on these shows, I know someone who is just as needy and just as deserving.

As I watched the following video about makeovers, I couldn’t help but wonder if that money could be put to better use:

What would I do with $25,000?

  • Buy instruments for a school that doesn’t have ANY.
  • Pay part of an itinerant teacher’s salary to visit MANY schools throughout the year.
  • Support a community program that serves thousands of students a year.
  • Award it to a nonprofit that could leverage it by raising matching funds.
  • Start an endowment in a school district for arts education, helping ensure that ALL of the students in that district received arts instruction EVERY year.

Unfortunately, these makeovers seem to be symptoms of a larger problem around the country.

Here is another example:

An article from The San Francisco Examiner outlines how the schools there rely on a patchwork of grant programs and donations to provide arts education. The article quoted my former boss, Mark Slavkin, VP for Education at the Music Center: Performing Arts Center of LA County.

“The northeastern states are spending twice as much on education as California,” Slavkin said. “What these states take for granted, like dedicated art and music teachers, is something of a luxury in California.” Although the community often steps up to prevent art and music from getting cut, Slavkin said that approach was no longer sustainable. “It’s a pretty noble gesture, but it can be self-defeating in the long run if it’s not coupled with advocacy,” he said. “The arts can sometimes dig ourselves a hole by saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll have a bake sale, we’ll raise money.’”

I couldn’t agree more, Mark.

It feels like I read a new article about this type of funding for arts education every day. This steady stream of articles points to a growing trend that makes me uncomfortable.

I just keep coming back to the major problem with this patchwork approach: EQUITY. I can’t help but think about the students at schools that don’t get magical makeovers or win contests.

What do they get? How is it okay for only the winners of popularity contests to get the type of education that all students deserve?

I know that districts are caught between a rock and a hard place. It is tempting to adopt the mentality that something is better than nothing. And I generally subscribe to the notion that organizations need a healthy mix of earned income, private donations, and government funding. But shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the district (through federal, state, and local taxes) to provide critical supplies and instruction? Then, the makeovers, micro-philanthropists, online votes, and contests could all just be icing on the cake.

So how do we move away from this patchwork approach? Here are my three suggestions:

1)      Investment in arts specialists that serve ALL students in a district.

2)      Training for elementary teachers that equips them to teach some basic arts lessons.

3)      Coordinated and strategic efforts in communities, much like Arts for All in LA, Big Thought in Dallas, and the Right Brain Initiative in Portland.

What would you suggest?

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