In March of 2012, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) launched the Arts Education Funders Coalition. The goal of the Coalition is “to research and identify federal policy opportunities that promote equitable access to arts education in all public schools.” It consists of about 135 individuals from 115 organizations within GIA’s membership and is led by a small advisory committee of prominent voices in arts advocacy, education, and philanthropy.
This is new territory for GIA. The organization’s president and CEO, Janet Brown, acknowledged in a recent conversation that public policy can be uncomfortable, risky, and “very difficult to get funders to invest in.” Successes are few, far between, and at the mercy of our volatile political process. But when a critical mass of arts education funders felt funding nonprofit programs was no longer a sufficient strategy to achieve their aspirations to further arts education in public schools, they decided to attempt to affect policy directly, and GIA took on the challenge.
Setting the stage
When attempting to influence public policy, an organization must first decide where and how to target its efforts. Will the focus be on the federal, state, or local level? Should a law be enacted, tweaked, or repealed? With the Arts Education Funders Coalition, GIA decided to focus on the federal level and work toward adding pro-arts language to existing education legislation.
In announcing the formation of the Coalition, Janet Brown explained:
Why is GIA involving itself in federal policy, you might ask. It’s because that’s where decisions are made in education in America. Although we’d love to believe that education policies are determined locally, the reality is federal policy drives the actions made by state departments of education and local superintendents and school boards. Our obsession with testing to determine learning is evidence of this. Equity issues are best dealt with at the federal level where the governmental “carrot” is meant to level the playing field.
Despite its national aspirations, the Funders Coalition hasn’t garnered much attention to date from the arts sector. According to Janet Brown, “[The Arts Education Funders Coalition is] not a very visible project because it’s a different kind of advocacy than American for the Arts (AFTA).” AFTA, the lead advocacy organization for our sector, mobilizes email campaigns and organizes Arts Advocacy Day, which brings hundreds of people to Washington each year in an overt attempt to draw the attention of policymakers to issues concerning the arts community, among other advocacy efforts. (The organizations are talking to each other: AFTA’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Arts Education, Narric Rome, is on the advisory committee of the GIA Arts Education Funders Coalition.) GIA is taking a quieter approach, banking in part on the assumption that a pro-arts education agenda would have more clout coming from a group of people who have skin in the public education game:
As a group of funders who have contributed millions of dollars to the public education system or to the nonprofit arts sector to compensate for lack of arts education in public schools, Coalition members and other funders have a stake in developing effective policy that will secure the place of arts education in twenty-first century education.
To lead the effort, GIA hired a Washington, DC firm specializing in education policy, the Penn Hill Group, to help develop an agenda and do the on-the-ground lobbying. Executive vice president Alex Nock has been presenting the Funders Coalition’s progress as part of GIA’s web conference series.
The Funders Coalition’s agenda takes on many aspects of federal education policy, including juvenile justice, research, Head Start, teacher evaluation, and the cornerstone of federal education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, formerly known as No Child Left Behind). It describes the arts-positive change the Funders Coalition would like to see in each area, including:
- “that any school improvement structure adopted in ESEA reauthorization… include arts education as a strategy in the overall plan to turn around a low-performing school,”
- “that arts education be integrated into the Head Start standards and partnerships be encouraged between Head Start providers and community arts organizations,” and
- “that the [Investing in Innovation] program adopt an absolute priority for arts education that requires the Department of Education to fund quality applications with an arts education focus.”
The agenda is multifaceted, but GIA’s focus is on language. According to Janet Brown, the Coalition faced a choice at its outset. It could propose new, stand-alone legislation to advance arts education, or lobby to change existing laws. After considering the contentious political climate, relatively low priority of education policy on the congressional to-do list, and extreme amount of time and effort brand new legislation would require, GIA and the Penn Hill Group deemed the latter option more realistic.
The story so far
We’re just weeks away from the Coalition’s second birthday. What progress has it made?
On November 18,2013, GIA sent an email to members of the Funders Coalition with good news: “Through work with Members of Congress and their staff, [we were] able to ensure that arts education would play a prominent role in the preschool programs funded under [a proposed] bill should it pass Congress over the next year.” Time will tell how “prominent” that role actually is, but the announcement suggests an encouraging victory for what is a relatively new effort.
Pre-K may have been low-hanging fruit for the Funders Coalition. Without standardized testing and other competitors for the class time that older students face, Pre-K curricula naturally have more room for the arts. But according to Brown, the inclusion of arts-friendly language in the bill was not inevitable. “If we had not been there the language would not have been included,” Brown said. “Bills are written based on the knowledge of the staff who are writing them.” If that’s the case, it’s a good thing the Penn Hill Group and GIA are there to educate them.
The Coalition has also succeeded in getting more specific language included in Senator Tom Harkin’s bill to reauthorize ESEA, which will hopefully be brought to the Senate floor for consideration in March or June. ESEA has been waiting for reauthorization since 2007, and Alyson Klein for EdWeek accurately called its chances back in June: “Everyone knows that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is ultimately headed absolutely nowhere [in 2013], thanks to partisan divisions.” The language included in Senator Harkin’s bill is a win for the Funders Coalition, but the success of the bill is difficult to forecast given Congress’s recent track record of inaction when it comes to ESEA.
The next act
The Funders Coalition’s effort raises familiar but tricky questions about arts education advocacy:
- Is legislative language without designated funding enough to make real change? New York City’s arts education legislation is a great example of the folly of language that isn’t backed by specific, dedicated funding. In 2007, $67.5 million previously earmarked for arts education was released to the discretion of school principals. Accountability measures were put in place to theoretically ensure that students received the arts education prescribed by law, but many arts advocates would argue that the state of arts education in New York City schools has declined as a result of the change. The conventional wisdom is that if decision makers don’t have to spend money on a non-tested subject, they likely won’t, focusing resources instead on subjects in which the school is held accountable for its performance. To ensure the delivery of arts education in schools, policy needs to mandate what is to be provided to students, allocate dedicated funding, and establish a mechanism to ensure compliance. How much will be budgeted, for example, for the arts if they are to play a prominent role in preschool programs across the country? Will the appropriated funding be enough for full-time arts teachers in every school or simply materials with which general classroom teachers can incorporate arts projects? Language will help, but it’s not everything. Funding is a very important piece of the puzzle. Which begs the question…
- Does it make more sense to work at the federal or state/local level? Federal policies set priorities which states are encouraged to adopt via competitive funding programs and other means of reward and punishment. All states receiving Race to the Top grants, for example, must develop comprehensive teacher evaluation systems as a condition of funding. Nevertheless, education is constitutionally assigned as a state concern and the bulk of education funding – over 90% – comes from state and local sources. Therefore, state and local officials have the most control over how education funds are spent. If you grant the premise that money is a key, if not the key, ingredient in successful reform, the states could be the best place to advocate for arts education.
For now, it’s too early to tell what answers we might glean from GIA’s experience, and whether its quieter strategy will pay off. It could be that potential victories for the Funders Coalition really do influence state priorities and lead to expanded arts education opportunities in schools. At the very least, as the Funders Coalition continues its work we should know more about the potential for funders to be advocates. There are many valuable lessons to be learned as this effort continues.