City Councilman Robert Jackson speaks at a protest against cuts to arts education on the steps of City Hall.
City Councilmember Robert Jackson speaks at a protest against cuts to arts education on the steps of City Hall.

Roughly 350 arts specialists will be among the 4,000 teacher layoffs next year if the City Council signs onto Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget, according to a report released today by an arts education advocacy group.

Building on 135 arts positions eliminated this school year, the layoffs would amount to a 20 percent reduction in the number of arts teachers working in city schools in just the last three years.

Eight City Council members and dozens of angry parents came to City Hall today to announce the report, prepared by the Center for Arts Education, and to protest the potential cuts.

Gretchen Mergenthaler, whose eight-year-old son Declan attends P.S. 98 in Inwood, said that he is offered either art or music once each week, but no dance or theater.

“We have a gorgeous auditorium that we don’t even use,” Mergenthaler said. “This is a picture of P.S. 98 before any budget cuts. Can you imagine it after?”

Today’s report is an analysis of data that the city has been releasing since it overhauled the way arts funding is allotted to schools.

The overhaul gave principals the freedom to determine their own arts spending, but required that they report their decisions in more detail than had happened previously. The idea was that reporting requirements would serve as a way to hold principals accountable for investing sufficiently in the arts.

“We’re going to help them,” CAE director Richard Kessler said in 2007, adding, “And hold their feet to the fire.”

Kessler was vocal in his criticism of the changes then, which prompted the Center for Arts Education to move from working with schools to evaluating the city’s arts programs.

The city has maintained that the changes have not hurt the quality of their arts offerings.

In a statement, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that in the last eight years, city schools have become models for arts instruction and the number of students receiving arts instruction has increased.

“So even with impending layoffs, I am confident we will be able to build on the significant progress we have made revitalizing arts in the schools,” he said.

But today’s report paints a dismal picture of what has happened since. In addition to losses in the number of arts teachers, funding for art supplies also dropped to about $2 per student in the 2009-10 school year.

“What can you buy with two dollars? A box of chalk? A couple of paintbrushes?” said Doug Israel, the director of research and policy at the Center for Arts Education. “Especially here in New York City, it’s surprising and shocking that this would occur.”

During the rally, Council Member Robert Jackson, who chairs the council’s education committee, held a paper microphone and a sad-face mask up to his face and pretended to cry. “I need my programs in art and music and theater!” he said.

Jackson, whose daughter is a dancer, said, “If children couldn’t sing, dance, play instruments, they’d be crying.”

Other parents said that’s already happening. Carlton Curry, whose seven-year-old daughter Carleta attends P.S. 126 in the Bronx, said that cultural nights at his school have had to be rescheduled because of problems getting supplies.

After the rally, Jackson said that he still believed that it was possible to fend off the cuts if elected officials and parents keep the pressure on the mayor and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

“I think it’s realistic, it’s possible, if the parties are willing to be flexible,” Jackson said. “The game plan is to continue the press conferences, the rallies, the phone calls, all the things necessary to communicate how important this is.”

Center for Arts Education Report, 6/9/11