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As in L.A., city advocates call for arts to be seen more as "core"

A move made in Los Angeles last week to elevate arts classes to a special status is unlikely to be repeated in New York City soon, despite exhortations from local arts advocates.

L.A. school board members unanimously approved a resolution to make arts a “core subject,” or one considered essential to students’ education. The proposal was aimed at insulating arts from further budget cuts and laying groundwork for a restoration of arts funding within five years.

“The use of the term ‘core’ says that every child will be entitled to it, and when you use the word ‘core,’ there’s a financial expectation attached to it,” the district’s top — and only — arts official told Southern California Public Radio. “So when cuts are made, now that the arts are core, cuts will need to be spread across all the disciplines. Now the arts can be seen as important as social studies, science, math and language arts.”

New York City technically includes arts courses in what it considers core subjects, in keeping with federal and state language, according to Department of Education officials. But when the department awards schools for their students’ success in passing academic courses, it leaves the arts out.

On the city’s annual city progress reports, high schools receive points based on how many classes students passed in the last year. Extra weight is given to English, math, science, and social studies courses, the ones the city considers to be at the core of the academic program. This year, for the first time, middle schools also received credit for the proportion of students who passed classes in those subjects.

The change to the middle school progress report prompted seven leading arts advocates to petition city officials in late August to add arts to the Department of Education’s list of core subjects. The advocates, who included the director of the Center for Arts Education and the chair of the New York City Arts Coalition, argued in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott that the department’s metrics signal to principals that it’s okay to give the arts short shrift.

“The inclusion of the arts, and other core subject areas, in the Progress Report will send a clear message to parents, principals, and school communities that the city understands that these subject areas are essential to the education and health and well‐being of our schoolchildren,” they wrote.

Department officials say that’s not on the table right now.

“At this time we don’t have plans to weight [arts] on the progress report,” said spokeswoman Deidrea Miller. She noted that unlike reading and math, the subjects that make up 80 to 85 percent of elementary and middle schools’ annual grades, there is no standardized assessment for the arts.

The department does include questions about whether students receive arts instruction on the survey it distributes annually to parents and students. It also publishes an annual “Arts in Schools Report” tallying the survey responses and schools’ spending on arts instruction. But the survey questions and annual arts report are not part of the department’s accountability system for schools.

Arts funding in New York City schools declined amid broader budget cuts after the Bloomberg administration stopped requiring principals to spend a certain portion of their funds on arts instruction.

A key difference between Los Angeles and New York City is how the schools are governed. Mayoral control has been in place here since 2002, but L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa lost a bid to gain control over his city’s schools early in his tenure. By funding the campaigns of school board candidates and cultivating a bloc of four of the board’s seven members, he has ensured that the board is generally friendly to his initiatives. But it is possible for the board to pass resolutions against the city’s objections.

In the case of the arts resolution, Los Angeles officials said they also thought more should be done to maintain arts instruction. A day before the school board’s vote, Villaraigosa and other officials announced a campaign to promote arts integration in other subjects.

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