Facebook Twitter

Arts education gets a rare spotlight on the campaign trail

It represents just 1.5 percent of the city schools budget and often gets left out of education stump speeches, but arts education got the mayoral field’s full attention on Tuesday night at a forum at Teachers College Columbia University.

During a rotation of 12-minute interviews with public radio hosts Kurt Anderson and Leonard Lopate, a slew of candidates were each asked a version of the same question: Will you do a better job in funding arts education?

Arts programs in schools across the country have been the first to get cut as districts faced with economic downturns shifted their priorities toward meeting state standards in reading and math. Under the Bloomberg administration, arts spending has wavered around $300 million, or about $300 per student, a disbursement that each candidate said was not good enough.

While all the candidates said they’d spend more than the current annual totals, none pledged a specific dollar amount.

“It’s always dangerous to pick a number,” said Bill Thompson.

Thompson said that arts education had to be a part of how schools are evaluated, an idea that other candidates have proposed as well. When asked how he’d do that, Thompson said he’d require principals to allot more of their schools’ budgets to arts programs and hold them accountable if they didn’t

“There are some things that you can’t measure,” Thompson added.

Under the new teacher evaluation system that the next mayor will inherit, schools are required under state law to evaluate arts teachers, some of which will be based on measures of student learning.

Bill de Blasio, who has proposed taxing the city’s wealthiest residents to fund pre-school and afterschool education programs, gave a fiscally restrained answer about support for arts. He said that with negotiations of new contracts for more than 100 city labor groups facing the next mayor, he preferred not to make a specific funding commitment.

“I am a progressive, but I can count,” de Blasio said. “I’d like to be honest with people about the fact that we have a very serious problem the next few years.”

Republican candidate Joe Lhota said that he considered arts and music education “critical to the formulation of young minds” and said it should be “part of the core” that is part of the Department of Education’s baseline budget.

“When you make it supplemental, you also make it the first thing to cut,” Lhota said. “I think that when you cut arts education you make a mistake.”

Lhota suggested that one way for schools sharing the same building to expand arts programs affordably could be to share an arts teachers. Currently, fewer than half of all schools employ an arts teacher.

The candidates also used their speaking time to share some personal details about their own experience in the arts. Lhota said a love of classical music is “what charges me up and what calms me down,” though he hated the opera music that his old boss Rudy Giuliani listened to. John Liu played the violin, and Bill Thompson said that playing the viola at Midwood High School taught him discipline and improved his math skills.

De Blasio said that his son’s experience at M.S. 51’s drama program improved his confidence and public speaking skills.

“A lot came out of it that were sort of life skills, not just enhancement of the rest of education,” de Blasio said.