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Despite Budget Squeeze, Arts Are Still Robust, Ed Department Says

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 - 02:17 PM

Spending in arts education increased by nearly 2 percent in the past school year, despite the many challenges posed by several consecutive years of budget cuts to city schools, according to a report released by the Department of Education on Tuesday.

There were more arts teachers on schools’ payrolls last year, as well as more students taking part in school-based arts programs. According to the report, based on surveys of school administrators citywide, all of the city’s elementary schools offered at least one arts discipline, most commonly visual arts classes, taught by classroom teachers, arts teachers or instructors from cultural organizations.

Over all, the number of certified arts teachers on schools’ payrolls also went up modestly — to 2,481 in 2010-11, from 2,462 in 2009-10. The increase, though, was exclusive to elementary schools; middle and high schools had fewer arts teachers last year than in 2009-10, and fewer still than what they had in 2004-5. (Middle schools lost 101 teachers during this period, about 15 percent of their staff members, and high schools lost 85, approximately 9 percent.)

According to the report, in 2010-2011, 54 percent of schools met state requirements for arts education, up from 51 percent in the previous year. Lori Sherman, acting executive director at the Center for Arts Education, a nonprofit organization, said that while the number is encouraging, "the fact that 46 percent of elementary schools are not providing what students are promised in state education law clearly demonstrates there is still much work to be done to ensure all public elementary school students receive equal access to quality instruction in the arts."

The report was the fifth to assess the state of arts education in city schools, and its results offer a quantitative snapshot of the state of arts education in city schools.

Although the numbers paint an encouraging picture, there is still no reliable assessment of the quality of the arts programs. A federal grant is meant to provide for that, but it is still not enough to provide for and sustain a consistent evaluation system, the report says.

Survey respondents said money was their main challenge last school year: they struggled to pay for the programs as a whole and also to buy supplies. The Department of Education allocated $316 million to arts education in 2010-11, $4 million more than in 2009-10, but $10 million less than the $326 million it set aside in 2008-09.

Over the past five school years, personnel costs went up steadily, while expenditures on supplies declined by 81 percent -- to $2 million in 2010-11 from $11 million in 2006-07, according to the report.

In a statement, the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, praised “the hard work and resourcefulness” of schools and its cultural partners. In all, 86 percent of the schools that responded to the survey said they maintained partnerships with cultural organizations.

“Providing every student with a quality arts education that challenges them to think creatively supports our mission of graduating all our students college-ready,” Mr. Walcott said. “This year’s report shows that thanks to the hard work and resourcefulness of our schools and cultural partners, we continue to make steady progress in offering arts instruction to more students.”

The outside organizations also provided part of the external funding schools have increasingly had to rely on to maintain their arts programs. (Other sources of external funding were private foundations, the City Council, parent associations and local business groups.)

The teachers' union president, Michael Mulgrew, pointed out that having more arts teachers does not necessarily mean more arts instruction, as it is not uncommon for them to teach other subjects. In the end, it all boils down to adapting to the budget cuts, he went on. "Every time there is a cut," Mr. Mulgrew said, "the art program and the music go first and the last thing back is the art and music programs."

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