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The Trickle-Down Effect of Federal Arts Education Policy

Narric Rome

Not long into my tenure at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration, I came to understand the limits of what the federal government can do for K-12 education.

At the time, the department boosted funding to support the hiring of 100,000 new teachers and the launch of a new national afterschool initiative that is now a $1.1 billion program.

Arts teachers were among the 100,000 new hires and many of the programs embraced the arts. Federal investment had an important impact, but many arts education advocates would not rank these two accomplishments as major successes. Why? Because a new arts teacher and a new arts afterschool program did not appear in every school in every community.

We need to remember that the federal share in total education spending is only 11 cents on the dollar. The remaining funds come from state and local sources.

Which brings me to federal policy.

The single most powerful provision in federal education law benefitting arts education is the designation of the arts as a “core academic subject” in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

This allows schools to use federal funds to support arts teachers, arts programs, and services provided by local cultural organizations. Even more importantly, the designation also sends an essential policy signal.

It affirms the value of the arts as an area of instruction. This is why Americans for the Arts, and our national advocacy partners, have worked so hard to protect this designation from being weakened or removed.

It appears to me that the secret to being effective lies in vertically integrating our federal, state, and local advocacy strategies.

It’s a complex web of jurisdictions and policy inputs that determine whether and how a public school student in a given school gets formal training in, and through, the arts.

We cannot hope to make change for every public school student unless we begin to work to impact the system as a whole.

Pushing the lever on federal policy, while critical, in and of itself is not enough.

We have to concentrate on impacting federal policy, that can impact state administration, that can affect local implementation.

Federal Policy

Americans for the Arts hosts more than 80 national arts and arts education groups at the annual Arts Advocacy Day as part of the ongoing effort to influence K-12 federal education legislation.

We are working in a narrow space.

NCLB (otherwise known as the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) became law in early 2002 and there hasn’t been a major K-12 education law passed since then—just short-term grant opportunities funded through appropriations bills.

Reauthorization of ESEA has become that piece of legislation always “expected” to be considered, but which fails to be because of Congressional dysfunction and the electoral calendar.

Our federal advocacy opportunities, however, are much larger than ESEA reauthorization.

Recently, the White House and U.S. Department of Education have taken a number of important, and independent, steps to advance arts education.

I believe that the report recently issued by the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities represents the broadest and most detailed statement of support for arts education from any administration in recent history.

The President and First Lady have hosted a half dozen arts education events and the White House recently highlighted the work of 14 arts education “Champions of Change” on its website.

This year, the U.S. Department of Education is spending more on direct arts education projects than ever before through the Investing in Innovation and the Arts in Education programs.

In early 2012, the department will release the full results of the Fast Response Survey System report—the most comprehensive look at the status of arts education in our nation’s public schools since 1999.

At Americans for the Arts, we continue to work to convince the Department of Education to include measures of the arts in their national research efforts and in their school turnaround efforts.

We continue to ask for an end to the narrowing of the curriculum, for less of an emphasis on summative testing, and for the use of multiple measures to gauge student achievement.

We work with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) leaders to find ways to bring in the arts and concentrate on strategic alliances to make it happen.

But all of this work—if confined only to the federal level—will not be enough to get where we need to go.

As articulated by the Stanford Social Innovation Review in a recent article on how foundations, and others, can evaluate advocacy, “Successful advocacy projects must simultaneously pursue opportunities at the local, state, and federal level, as well as across governmental institutions.”

*This excerpted post was originally published as part of the Arts Education Blog Forum on Barry’s Blog. To read the full post (including Narric’s thoughts on state and local arts education policy), and others responding to the same issue, visit

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