Skip to main content
Ed. Magazine

On the Chopping Block, Again

Illustration by Tim Walker

Art budgets in public schools are constantly on the cutting block. With the nation's current economic woes, schools are preparing for even deeper cuts. Is there any hope?


As someone who has been immersed in arts education for more than 20 years, Steve Seidel, Ed.M.'89, Ed.D.'95, has seen it all.

When he arrived at South Boston High School in 1981 as part of an artist-in-residence program, the school curriculum included music, visual arts, a poetry magazine, and theater -- which Seidel taught -- allowing students to partake in a full range of offerings. In the wake of Boston's painful desegregation process in 1974, monies were made available to fund such projects in schools where racial tensions had not only simmered, but boiled over. South Boston High School had already seen its fair share of trouble, and the artist-in-residence program was viewed as a positive step and a creative outlet to bring all students of all races together.

To Seidel's delight, the program met with success. His theater program thrived, and he felt that he was able to reach students who may not have been reached otherwise. Boston-bred actor Paul Guilfoyle (currently on CSI) even got in on the act, visiting class on a day when a student who could barely achieve focus performed an improvisation that, as Seidel explains, "just exploded."

"We had our mouths open," says Seidel, now director of the Arts in Education (AIE) Program and former director of Harvard's Project Zero, a 41-year-old program focused on learning and creativity in the arts. "He was great, and when it was over, he was so excited. Paul and I talked about it afterward, about whether we could get this student to that place again. Paul said, 'It doesn't matter, because he's already tasted it.' Years later, I ran into this former student on Brattle Street at the Harvard Extension School, where he was taking writing classes. He told me then that it was the theater class at South Boston High School that led him to writing."

Seidel knew he had similarly reached other students, but by the time he departed eight years later after funding was cut, South Boston High School was left with one visual arts teacher for an urban school comprising about 900 students.

"Providing powerful learning experiences for large groups of people is an enormously difficult task, and we don't have the resources to do it," says Seidel. "I don't accept the premise that most of the education we're attempting is adequately resourced to address the task, and arts education is one of the many compromises. Who suffers? What does it mean to a child who can't have art? Who can't have music?"

Unfortunately, many school systems around the nation may soon find out exactly what it means. With urban and suburban districts facing the deepest budget cuts they've seen since the recession of the mid-1980s -- and a milder recession in the early 2000s -- the prospects for comprehensive arts education in most K-12 public schools appear bleak, and even schools with minimal programs may lose what they considered to be bare bones to begin with. According to a January article in Education Week, 31 states face budget shortfalls of $30 billion or more, and the nation's governors have acknowledged that education will have to bear its fair share. Some states have already imposed midyear cuts, including California, which was expected to shed $1 billion from its $42 billion education budget. Fiscal year 2010 could see New York state lose $700 million in education funding, while Ohio's state budget could lose as much as 25 percent across the board.

For schools that have already lost traditional in-house arts programs and have come to rely on the services provided by outside partnering art institutions and organizations, advocates are fearful of their fates as well, with predictions, as reported by the Associated Press in early February, that as many as 10,000 arts organizations could disappear in 2009.

"What concerns me about this downturn is that everyone is feeling the pain," says Richard Bell, a member of the AIE advisory board and the executive director of Young Audiences, the nation's largest arts education program, serving 7 million children in 700 programs across 26 states. "This is the worst economic situation I've seen in my 37 years with Young Audiences, and even though it hasn't hit us yet, we are definitely going to be affected. I don't see a clear strategy or path for us to emphasize how to ameliorate this condition."


With partnering arts organizations like Bell's bracing for a multiyear effect -- and the impact of President Barack Obama's $787 billion state stimulus package on K-12 schools still yet to be seen -- arts educators from every discipline admit that while they are used to the earth shifting beneath their feet, they now face a virtual earthquake of change.

"I'll be very honest; we're not just seeing the clouds on the horizon, we're in the storm," says Amanda Lichtenstein, Ed.M.'05, a poet and consultant at Urban Gateways Center for Arts Education, an organization that brings visual, literary, media, and performing arts experiences to children in and around Chicago.

"It's the single discipline that's always on the chopping block, and the arts, like sports, get cast aside with budget cuts," says Jessica Hoffmann Davis, Ed.M.'86, Ed.D.'91, founder of the AIE Program and author of Why Our Schools Need the Arts and Framing Education as Art. "So once again, we are going to cut arts in education. Alert the media!"

Seidel and others trace some of the earliest reductions in K-12 arts funding back to October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the 180-pound, beach ball-shaped satellite whose 98-minute orbit around the Earth launched more than the U.S.-U.S.S.R. race into space.

"Sputnik was the wake-up call to America as a society but also to American education," says Seidel. "Science in schools was pushed to the forefront, and the notion that we might not be up to par [vis-à-vis] the Soviet Union brought intense scrutiny. More funding was put toward science in education. As a society, we agree on the central role of science and technology on building a powerful nation. The arts, and, in truth, the humanities, take a back seat to math, science, and technology, and while we have a focus on literacy, history, and the humanities broadly, and while they have a secure place in the curriculum, the arts are seen as peripheral."

Still, more than 50 years after Sputnik -- and despite boundless research and anecdotal evidence on the value of the arts as part of a child's comprehensive educational experience, not to mention art simply for art's sake -- why is it still the first to go when budgets head south?

"People generally think that the arts are nice and culturally significant and all that, but most people don't have much of a vision of why the arts are really important in people's personal, civic, and professional lives," says Professor David Perkins, a founding member of Project Zero. "From my point of view, engagement with art and the creating of art are opportunities for students to learn to think in one or another medium. ... After all, thinking in one or another medium is what we have to do every day as we engage the complexities of contemporary life."

And as we ponder the important passage of information from one generation to the next.

"Human beings have done some bad things, but they have done some remarkable things as well, especially in the arts. We remember civilizations much more for their arts than anything else," says Professor Howard Gardner, a fellow Project Zero founder. "Moving to the more cognitive issues, I am not a person who believes we should teach art to raise math scores. ... The arts give young people the chance to express things they may otherwise not express."

For the majority of Americans who believed there was indeed a correlation between the arts and math scores, Gardner's wife, Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, along with Lois Hetland, Ed.M.'92, Ed.D.'00, an associate professor of art education at the Massachusetts College of Art, changed those perceptions with a study conducted for Project Zero in 2007. Winner and Hetland refuted what 80 percent of Americans considered education gospel, namely that learning a musical instrument could translate into greater talent in math and science. However, the two researchers acknowledged in a 2007 Boston Globe story that while "students involved in the arts do better in school and on their SATs than those who are not involved ... correlation isn't causation, and an analysis we did several years ago showed no evidence that arts training actually causes scores to rise."

However, Hetland says grades should not be our focus.

"Grades are supposed to be an indicator that students are getting what they should be getting," she says. "When the standardized tests begin to test thinking, I'll care about the test scores ... but it's not what we want to be doing for kids. We don't want to open up their heads, dump information in there, and then ask them to recite it. We want them to be good, productive citizens, to know how to solve problems creatively, and to collaborate in innovative ways. We want them to know how to make mistakes ... and fix them. We want people who are reflective and know how to use words, and we want people to know how to evaluate quality."

As famed conductor Leonard Bernstein once said, "Music ... can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable." In 1984, he told The New York Times that his initiation into the love of learning, and of learning how to learn, "was revealed to me by my [Boston Latin School] masters as a matter of interdisciplinary cognition, that is, learning to know something by its relation to something else."

That definition, say educators and advocates, is exactly the balance that arts education provides to students who have the benefit of its lessons, but if that "something else" is taken away from today's children, especially those with limited exposure who may not be motivated by math or science, how do we reach them?

"There is the argument one can make that the arts are essentially a very powerful form of communication that allows people to express what one cannot do easily," says Seidel. "When people become effective in the arts, they can communicate profound perspectives and analyses of human conditions."

Seidel cites a passage from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in which Douglass recalls the impact of hearing fellow slaves singing in the middle of the night. Their mournful lyrics served to illustrate the soul-destroying quality of their bondage. Douglass later escaped to freedom, taught himself to read and write, and, against his personal safety, published his autobiography.

"When you really learn to express yourself," says Seidel, "you are given your full humanity."

As the economic climate worsens, Seidel and others tout the resilience of the arts and those who work creatively to keep it in classrooms and community centers.

"We can look at some of the losses but we also need to focus on new innovations and new processes," says Seidel. "It's a time for entrepreneurial initiative, but that's not new for people in this field."

Lichtenstein sees some silver linings at Urban Gateways.

"We're feeling the economic impact, but at the same time that we're feeling it and it's devastating, there's also this really powerful momentum being built around this crisis," she says. "It has been a really incredible opportunity to build new coalitions, to have different kinds of conversations with people. We're bringing in principals, we're bringing in parents, reaching out to other arts groups ... so while I feel like we're definitely feeling the cuts and we're seeing it in schools and suffering is happening with museums and cultural institutions in Chicago, at the same time there's a lot of energy and excitement about national conversations around the arts."

Included among those national conversations is the proposed addition of a White House-level secretary of the arts and culture, a post that music producer Quincy Jones and others have publicly asked President Barack Obama to consider. And in February, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser announced Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative to help fellow arts organizations persevere the economic storm. In the first three and a half weeks of its launch, Kaiser reported that 250 arts organizations contacted the Kennedy Center for its pro bono help, which will include a new arts in education program, slated to pilot in the Lafayette, La., schools next year, that aims to reshape the current, episodic nature of children's arts education.

"We've created an approach that uses the resources of the Kennedy Center, the local schools, and local arts organizations to create a tailored program for K-8," says Kaiser, author of The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. "So many schools do programs but they're not tailored ... and we're trying to say, 'Let's take what the organizations have, what the schools have, and what the Kennedy Center has and see what collectively we can do.'"

Current Harvard Graduate School of Education master's students enrolled in the AIE Program also see the opportunities along with the challenges. One example is integrating arts into other subject areas.

"Arts and other content don't need to be mutually exclusive at all," says Christine Jee, Ed.M.'09, a public school teacher in Lawrence, Mass., a city north of Boston with a large Spanish-speaking population. "We can have this crisis, and focus on everyone cutting the arts, or we can think creatively of new ways to incorporate them."

"Sometimes it's just getting arts in the door," says Elena Figueroa, Ed.M.'09, an elementary school teacher in Framingham, Mass., where 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. "You can integrate into the classroom if you do it with integrity."

Both Jee and Figueroa have done exactly that, using grant money for special arts-based class projects or for first-time trips to museums. This fall, Santina Protopapa, Ed.M.'09, will return to Cleveland's Progressive Arts Alliance, the nonprofit she founded in 2002 to bring meaningful arts experiences to children in a community where 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch. Despite a "skeletal" staff and an annual budget of $270,000 that serves 1,500 children a week, Protopapa says she is "trying to scale it up in Cleveland so that every child will have an art experience every day."

What will help during this economic crisis, she says, is Ohio's new cigarette
tax, with 30 percent of revenue earmarked for the arts.

"All the artists are telling people to 'smoke one for the arts!'" she says, jokingly.

"I foster celebration rather than justification, and hopefulness rather than despair," says Davis. "Maybe folks dare to cut the arts because they know they will not go away. It's very inspiring to see those who work on a shoestring budget and when that funding dries up, they still work."

As agents of social change, says Davis, it is, after all, what artists do.

-- Mary Tamer is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Ed. Her last piece profiled illustrator Jeff Hopkins, Ed.M.'05. The illustrator, Tim Walker, is a visual arts teacher in a Plymouth, Mass. middle school.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles