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Investing in Arts Education

A Breakdown of Arts Education Policy & How it Affects Everyone

Photo: Courtesy of Vadim Fomenok

Jamie Kasper

Director, Arts Education Partnership

Arts education is part of the curriculum for youth everywhere in the United States, but local policy depends on a variety of lawmakers and community leaders.

From participating in a painting or dance class to attending a jazz or interactive theatre performance, excellent arts education is vital to a well-rounded education for children, providing both intrinsic and instrumental benefits.

While intrinsic benefits are those inherent to the discipline, like cognitive growth and expanded capacity for empathy, instrumental benefits are those linked to outcomes outside of the arts, like improved test scores. Both intrinsic and instrumental benefits of arts education have been documented over time, and policymakers at all levels — federal, state and local — make policy decisions within this context.

When I say “arts education,” I’m describing arts instruction that takes place in various settings across schools and communities. Arts education includes dance, media arts, music, theatre and visual arts taught by the arts teaching workforce. The Arts Education Partnership defines this workforce as certified arts teachers; teachers certified in content areas other than the arts, like elementary education or science; teaching artists; and higher education faculty and staff of arts and cultural institutions who facilitate arts learning experiences in various settings.

Many different people influence arts education policy. Federal and state legislators, state and local school boards, city and township councils, university boards of trustees, and arts organization boards are examples of bodies that have policymaking authority that influences arts education, but how members of those bodies are chosen and the authority they have varies among states. This variability results in inconsistencies in policies that ultimately decide whether a child has access to the benefits of an arts education. According to research of education policies across 50 states and the District of Columbia every state plus D.C. has academic standards in the arts, but only 26 include media arts as a fifth discipline. Forty-five states have licensure requirements for certified arts educators, and 25 states have a high school graduation requirement in the arts, although definitions of coursework that count for arts credit vary across states.

Other policy levers, including funding, shape children’s access to arts education. In fact, while most policies like the ones listed above govern in-school arts education, funding is a policy lever that also influences arts education in community settings. There are 22 states that have a dedicated grant program for arts education or a state-funded school for the arts, and these funds support arts education in both school and community settings. Maryland, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are just three examples of states where grants support arts education. In Maryland, the state legislature includes a fine arts grant line item in the budget each year. This grant goes to local education agencies, in this case, county-wide school districts, who use these funds to support teacher professional learning and curriculum work. Minnesota’s legislature established a state-funded arts high school, the Perpich Center for Arts Education, in 1985. And in Pennsylvania, as in many other states, the state arts council provides grants to support teaching artists working in both schools and community settings

In addition to education programs, some programs also include the arts as part of larger initiatives that may not seem, at first glance, to have an arts connection. One example is Shakespeare in American Communities, a national theatre program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. One facet of this program is providing theatre education to justice-impacted youth as part of a larger juvenile justice strategy.

Whether it’s taught in schools or community settings, by certified teachers or teaching artists, arts education has a documented impact on personal, academic and civic outcomes for youth. The intrinsic and instrumental benefits of arts education are important considerations for federal, state and local policymakers alike and can be seen in the implementation of policies that cover a range of interests, from in-school instruction to funding.

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