From the Obama-Biden Transition Project via Flickr

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama spent almost 10 of his 60 minutes discussing why it’s so essential to offer every child a world-class education:

Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school […] To all 50 states, we said, ‘If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.’

As part of his education agenda, Obama proposes to change the No Child Left Behind Act, formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). You may have heard of No Child Left Behind: a Bush-administration law that requires schools to heavily test students, and that punishes schools where students do not meet baseline test scores. It hasn’t really worked, but more on this later.

What I wanted to know is what Obama is proposing in his Blueprint for Reform: the Re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” And perhaps the juicier question for the arts education field: what does this proposal imply for the future of the arts in schools?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: A brief history

In 1965, the U.S poverty rate was at about nineteen percent (higher than the yearly national average, which vacillates between 13%-17%; in 2009, the figure was about 14.3%). To tackle this problem, President Lyndon Johnson created a legislative agenda called the Great Society, an initiative to provide social welfare programs from education to health care, including a program called the War on Poverty. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was designed as part of the War on Poverty to ensure that every child had equal access to quality education. It was enacted initially through 1970, but Congress has voted for its re-authorization every 5 years since then.

While it has gone through a few revisions since 1965, the most significant changes took place in 2001 under the Bush administration, when the ESEA was re-authorized with a new name and very different set of guidelines, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The main goal of NCLB was for all students to reach national levels of academic achievement each year through rigorous standardized testing.

Why No Child Left Behind failed

Under NCLB, 100% of students are expected to reach government-set “proficiency” by 2014. All 4th-8th grade students are required to improve on test scores each year in reading and math, “something no educational system anywhere on earth has ever accomplished,” Claudia Wallis notes. Evidence now shows that since the law was enacted, schools have failed in meeting the standards set by NCLB. As of March 9, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is saying that 82% of schools could be labeled as failing federal standards under No Child Left Behind. Check out more articles about the problems with the law here and here.

The rigorous testing has had an impact on the arts, as many teachers have had very little time to focus on integrating other subjects into the curriculum. Douglas Mefford sums it up best: “With the threat of lost funding and even total disbanding of the school at risk if even one specific group of students did not show ‘improvement,’ school systems were forced to redefine and lower their educational standards in order to avoid punishment.”

Obama’s proposal to change NCLB: Blueprint for Re-authorization of ESEA

The Obama administration proposes a different – and equally ambitious – goal to replace that of NCLB: for every student to graduate from high school prepared for college and the work-force.

The biggest shift presented by Obama’s proposal is that instead of giving a little money to everyone and implementing punitive measures for failure to perform, the government offers incentives in the form of grants to people doing the best work. The idea is to leverage current financial resources for dramatic systemic change, and to empower districts, schools, and teachers to make the best decisions about improving their educational environments.

A NY Times article from March 2010 explains more about the Blueprint: “The administration would replace the law’s pass-fail school grading system with one that would measure individual students’ academic growth and judge schools based not on test scores alone but also on indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate.”

A Complete Education

Obama asserts that in order to remain a competitive country economically and otherwise, our students need a complete education, and encourages “a new investment in improving teaching and learning in all content areas – from literacy to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to history, civics, foreign languages, the arts, financial literacy, environmental education, and other subjects – and in providing accelerated learning opportunities to more students to make post-secondary success more attainable.”

A complete educationsigh. I suddenly had visions of every school around the country starting an orchestra program, an art department, a choir. Children singing in harmony as they became more proficient in history, more creative in science, more savvy in math. OK, maybe not quite. But is a “complete education” as promising as it sounds, particularly for the arts?

At a first glance, it is.

To ensure a well-rounded education, the Blueprint offers competitive grants to states, nonprofits, and districts to strengthen teaching and learning in areas such as the arts (Blueprint, pg. 28). In order to make the case to keep or develop the arts in schools, the federal government first has to recognize the arts as an academic subject, and one sentence in this Blueprint indicates that we’re headed in the right direction: “Competitive grants will be awarded… to programs [that] focus on improving student academic achievement in core academic subjects, ranging from science, to history, [and] the arts.” (Blueprint, pg. 32).

Creating incentives for success, playing to people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses. Sounds great, but how do these grants work?

Richard Kessler (no relation), Executive Director of The Center for Arts Education, was tremendously helpful in providing some guidance for this blog. He broke down the grant process, and why he thinks it may pose challenges to getting education funding, as follows:

Grant process

  • Oftentimes, a project is initiated and developed by an arts organization, which needs to partner with a Local Education Agency (LEA) to be eligible for the grant.
  • Each LEA and partners apply together in one application for each individual grant.
  • One example of an LEA taking the lead is the Rochester School District, which has initiated arts integration projects with cultural organizations. Every project needs to have a set of outcomes in arts learning alongside improvement to test scores in English and math.


  • Core funding for school districts should be tax-levy based “hard” funding, which is a larger pool of money that lasts longer than grant money (“soft” money), which runs out.
  • Grant money might be great for certain research projects that school districts may not pay for, but arts organizations and school districts question the feasibility of building or sustaining programs that rely on the short-term nature of outside funding.

So, the grant process may not be that appealing for long-term arts education support. While grants may not be a major threat to integrating arts into schools, there are three other issues that could be significant potential threats:

The uncertain future of testing: It seems as if Obama’s proposal reorganizes the funding available to the arts and gives schools more flexibility in assessing student achievement. However, we have little proof that the rigorous testing will actually go away. And if the testing doesn’t go away, teachers may continue to put the arts on the curricular back burner to make more time to prepare students for tests in reading and math.

Budget ambiguity: Nothing is explained in the Blueprint about how much of the grant “pie” the arts will get. An issue brief from Americans for the Arts indicates that the arts will be part of a bigger pool of other subjects, but that we don’t know yet how much the arts will get in this pool.

Proposed budget cuts: It appears as if there’s an even bigger threat to the revival of the arts in schools: on March 1, Congress voted to eliminate the Arts Education Program at the federal level as part of a temporary budget measure, which will take away $40 million in current-year funding for arts in schools unless it is reversed.

I like Richard Kessler’s silver lining on his blog Dewey21C: “Maybe it will take these sorts of events to create new possibilities for how the field can work together and with other sectors to advocate for children, education, and the arts.”

Obama’s Blueprint may seem promising for the arts, but we still do not know whether it will shift schools away from rigorous testing to focus on building a complete and robust education for students, with the arts as well as with other subjects. What we can do is work together to make sure that the arts are recognized as an essential part of a well-rounded education for all of our future leaders.

Here’s some more information about supporting the arts in schools if you’re curious:

Time-line for restoring funding to the federal Arts Education Program

The next continuing resolution is between March and September 30. In other words, now.

How to make a difference today

Join arts education advocates by writing to your Congressperson and asking to restore funding to the Arts Education Program. This would reinstate funding that was cut, and would ensure more access to grants for the arts. Take five minutes to fill out an easy online petition here or here.

  • Very insightful post – thank you for delving into this issue. For those who’d like to get more info, we have a webinar available for viewing on what Congress might do about reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act. Available to Americans for the Arts members of any level.

  • Kerry Farrell

    Great blog, Jen. My only comment is that funding projects through grants does have its downside, as you pointed out. But, if the project is focused enough and the funding is set up in the right way, there is the opportunity move the mission forward. Grant funding is not appropriate for every project, but it can be perfect for certain projects. Additionally, funding with property tax money can be tricky as well as many districts learned after the bottom fell out of the market and their budgets took the hit.

  • Lizzie Bicknell

    Jen, this is very well written and illuminating! Thanks for the article. It would be interesting to also look at the federal Early Intervention program that began in 1993, and the Board of Ed’s preschool programs, as having a successful pre-school experience and education has a huge impact on a student’s success in school once they reach kindergarten. And, it could be argued, that having increased social skills, confidence, esteem, and academic preparation in preschool will lead to a greater success in school in the longterm. And, the art programs that typically exist in preschools might just enable and enhance the student’s ability to learn and enjoy school!

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