The Arts and Arts Education Are Part of the Solution

05/05/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

We are in a springtime of mixed messages in America. Some graduation ceremonies feature stories of great opportunity by commencement speakers, while others are solemn events where graduating seniors are simply processed out the door toward an uncertain future. Clearly, some systems and communities are doing a better job of preparing our children for a creative, successful future. The arts can make a difference between these two outcomes--while there are certainly many other factors involved, the arts are proven to make a positive difference toward graduation and a better learning experience. That is why Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that arts education, or the lack of it, has become "a civil rights issue in America." And The Conference Board's Ready to Innovate study found that employers want 21st century employees who are creative; this age of innovation demands a creative workforce. At the top of the list for how to become creative is having the arts in the curriculum when the young people were in school.

It seems obvious given all the facts, studies, and clear examples all around us that our elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels would make sure that the arts and arts education are available to every young person in our country. But unfortunately, that is not the case. The battle for including adequate arts education in the curriculum remains ongoing but with very irregular results--creating a division between those who have the arts advantage and those who do not. That is the case right now at the federal level in our country. At this moment, our United States Congress is reauthorizing legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and we are battling not only to keep the arts in that legislation, but also to make it easier for action and funds to follow. This struggle isn't new--twenty years ago, Americans for the Arts, along with others, was able to ensure that the arts were included as core subjects in the legislation. The words were there but the legislation did not make it easy for the funding to actually become available.

I applaud our advocates of today but also all those who have been involved in this fight for many decades. In September 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened 49 state governors to set national performance goals, which led to formal goals in "challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography." This convening has been recognized as a key event leading to federal recognition of core academic subjects. The problem was that the arts were not in this list.

After several years of direct advocacy by arts education leaders, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley announced in February 1993 that "the arts--including music, theater, dance, and visual arts"--would become part of the "emerging national education standards," which turned into the legislation called Goals 2000. In Goals 2000: Educate America Act (approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton in March 1994) "arts" is listed in two sections, as "challenging subject matter" and "core content areas."

The Improving America's Schools Act authorization (the formal ESEA reauthorization approved in October 1994) stated that core academic subjects are those listed in Goals 2000 as "English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography." The most recent No Child Left Behind Act (2002) authorization also included "arts" in a definition of "core academic subjects."

Over the last 12 years since 2002, arts education advocates have been working at the state and local levels to fully realize the inclusion of the arts as a core academic subject. Because much of education's curricular policy is decided at the state and school district level, Americans for the Arts is piloting policy efforts in ten states to further connect the federal, state, and local policy pipeline in a systemic way. This includes supporting education research initiatives to boost local advocacy by arts education leaders to address equity and access issues.

In this spring's ESEA reauthorization effort by Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and senior Democrat Patty Murray (D-WA), the bipartisan legislation once again lists core academic subjects, which includes the arts. However, the definition has been expanded from ten subjects to 16, which also mentions writing, technology, engineering, computer science, music, and physical education, and "any other subject as determined by the State or local educational agency." Given these many interests, it is critical for arts advocates to maintain the federal leadership offered through this definition so that state and local school leaders can build upon this eligibility and ensure that the arts are included in local policy and budgetary decisions.

Twenty years ago I had the privilege of advocating together on Capitol Hill with the great violinist Isaac Stern. In his comments to members of Congress, he would often say, "In the United States, our greatest single source of wealth is the minds and talent of our young people. Not to use it is stupid--to waste it is a crime."

As we look around our nation this spring, these words are more powerful than ever before. A learning environment that includes arts education is a key part of the solution, helping students develop important skills needed for success in life, and better preparing students for a competitive workforce.