Arts in education advocates, including Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas, are on the offensive to try to keep the arts from getting squeezed out as a 2001 federal education reform act forces schools to raise national test scores in reading and math or face penalties.
Raising standards in arts education is a primary goal of Huckabee's term as chair of the Education Commission of the States , a nonpartisan interstate compact on education. His own state is emphasizing the arts 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 can offer the same arts enrichment opportunities. Because the school day is only so long and schools are electing to lengthen math and language arts classes, a trend is growing nationwide where dance, music, theatre and visual arts classes are offered only during lunch periods, after school or on the weekends, said Nancy Carr, a visual and performing arts consultant for the California department of education .
California had appropriated annual arts education funding totaling $6.5 million - one dollar for each student - for five consecutive years until it was penciled out for the 2003-2004 school year.
In addition, the California Arts Council , which gives out grants to community arts organizations that may result in a painter or Shakespeare troupe visiting the classroom, had its 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.
Dallas ArtsPartners , a partnership between the city's school district, government and cultural organizations, reported students with a heavy arts involvement - especially special ed and English language learners - scored higher on Texas standardized tests than a control group.
Particularly helpful for at-risk groups, which score notoriously low on nationalized tests and face steep drop-out rates, the arts are a useful tool but advocates fear their marginalization.
Underperforming schools are more likely to hire a new math teacher for fear of looming NCLB penalties, said former Maryland State Arts councillor Mary Ann Mears. Arts education access in low-income areas would benefit those underprivileged kids in myriad ways, said Mears, a sculptor and mother of four Baltimore City school children.
One 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.
Some advocates say it's too early in No Child Left Behind's implementation to gauge a loss in arts opportunities in schools.
"How this will play out remains to be seen. It's wait-and-see because the information isn't there yet," 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..
In fact, NCLB recognizes the arts as a "core academic subject" that will require arts teachers - the same as reading, math and science - to demonstrate content knowledge in their subject matter and provides federal funding for that professional development. However, the arts aren't tested like reading, math and science so advocates are picking up on sporadic reports that the arts are being cut and locking arms.
"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," Katz said.
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 some kind of arts education statewide, according to the Arts Education Partnership , a national coalition of arts, education, business, philanthropic and government organizations. However, local school districts can still elect to have an arts requirement in place.
Carr said she understands legislators are faced with not just difficult education-related decisions but other urgent policy issues.
Espousing the value of an arts education to state policy-makers, governors, state education chiefs and senate and house education committee chairs is a key goal of Huckabee's ECS chairmanship.
California arts advocates have taken that approach to keep the arts within the mindset of policymakers. Civic and community leaders are annually invited into arts classrooms in March - National Arts Education month.