Arts in education advocates, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), are on the offensive to try to keep the fine arts from getting squeezed out as the federal No Child Left Behind Act ratchets up pressure on schools to raise reading and math test scores.
Raising standards in arts education is a primary goal of Huckabee's term as chairman of the Education Commission of the States , a nonpartisan interstate compact on education. His own state is emphasizing the arts as a regular part of schools' curricula with a new law requiring 40 minutes of music and 40 minutes of visual art per week for every elementary school student.
However, not every state offers the same arts enrichment opportunities. Because the school day is only so long and schools are electing to lengthen math and language arts classes, there's a growing trend to relegate dance, music, theater and visual arts classes to lunch periods, after school or on weekends, said Nancy Carr, a visual and performing arts consultant for the California Department of Education .
California had appropriated arts education funding of $6.5 million annually—one dollar for each student—for five consecutive years until it was penciled out starting in the 2003-2004 school year.
In addition, the California Arts Council , which gives grants to community arts organizations that may bring resources such as a painter or Shakespeare troupe into classrooms, had its state funding gutted from $36 million a few years ago to $4 million in 2004, Carr said.
"Some states are still making the huge mistake of eliminating arts programs, thinking that they're doing the kids a favor academically, when in fact, they are hurting their children," Huckabee, a guitarist since his teen years, told Stateline.org .
Numerous studies have concluded that a strong arts curriculum raises standardized test scores and ingrains students with essential creative and problem-solving skills necessary for tomorrow's workplace.
"People want education to lead not only to a whole person but a person who can compete in the global, high-tech and creative economy. … This becomes something you would ignore at your peril," said Dr. Jonathan Katz, executive director of the National Association of State Arts Agencies , the collective voice of all 50 state arts agencies, which partner with state departments of education to set arts achievement and assessment standards.
The arts have been shown to be particularly helpful for at-risk groups, which score notoriously low on nationalized tests and face steep dropout rates.
Dallas ArtsPartners , a partnership between the city's school district, government and cultural organizations, reported students with a heavy arts involvement - especially special education pupils and English language learners - scored higher on Texas standardized tests than a control group.
Another lauded opportunity for at-risk youth is Massachusetts' YouthReach Initiative , a Massachusetts Cultural Council program, which partners with community arts organizations. Its after-school outreach to young people with disabilities, school dropouts, homeless youths and others has been so successful that its concepts are being adopted in Ohio and Colorado.
A study released Nov. 15 by the Arts Education Partnership , a national coalition of arts, education, business, philanthropic and government organizations, found high levels of student development and teacher job satisfaction in 10 schools with high concentrations of low-income students but vibrant arts programs.
Still, underperforming schools are more likely to hire a new math instructor rather than an arts teacher for fear of looming penalties under the 2001 federal education reform law, said former Maryland State Arts Councilor Mary Ann Mears, a sculptor.
"There's no question that right now people will go for the math teacher," said Joseph Villani, deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association .
School boards nationwide report placing a high priority on resources that may improve math and reading scores, Villani said.
Some experts say it's too early in No Child Left Behind's implementation to gauge a loss in arts opportunities in schools. The law, which requires testing in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, mandates that states improve standardized test scores until all students are proficient by 2014.
"How this will play out remains to be seen. It's wait-and-see because the information isn't there yet," Katz said.
In fact, NCLB recognizes the arts as a "core academic subject" and will require teachers of the arts - the same as reading, math and science - to be highly qualified in their subject matters. The arts aren't tested like reading, math and, soon, science, yielding results on which funding, bonuses and penalties hinge. However, testing is only one way to measure development, said Villani, with the school board association.
In Illinois, one of seven states without an arts education mandate, only 63 percent of schools offer visual arts, according to an October study by the Illinois Arts Alliance . The report found Illinois lags behind the national average in every arts discipline.
The other six—Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina and South Dakota -- do not mandate arts education statewide, according to Arts Education Partnership data. However, local school districts can still elect to have an arts requirement in place.