Teaching with Contemporary Art

If the Shoe Fits, Pay For It

Mike Kelley, "Painting with Hawaiian Mask, Ballerina, and De Stijl Painting" 1976, Courtesy Jablonka Galerie, Cologne

Mike Kelley, "Painting with Hawaiian Mask, Ballerina, and De Stijl Painting" 1976, Courtesy Jablonka Galerie, Cologne

I taught visual art in New York City for 13 years from 1990-2003. A majority of that time was spent in middle school classrooms and most of us received something called “Teachers Choice” each year. It was basically a way to buy supplies for our classroom and was considered the main source of funding for paper, paint, clay, etc. Whatever we needed to make our classrooms functional.

When I left New York City in 2003, the Teachers Choice program was giving teachers about $220 per year for supplies (it has since skyrocketed to $260). I had a few hundred kids to teach and was expected to buy a year’s worth of supplies for less than $250. Between the standardized testing craze that was, and still is, literally sweeping public schools off their collective feet, and the fact that I had to hold a bake sale (check that… sales) to purchase some of the things I needed, I knew that the New York City Public Schools had missed the boat somehow. One of the greatest cities in the world with a colossal number of theaters, museums, galleries, concert halls and performance spaces was giving art teachers less than $250 per year to purchase art supplies for a classroom??

Last month, the Center for Arts Education released a report stating that, “In New York City, the cultural capital of the world, public school students do not enjoy equal access to an arts education. In fact, schools with the lowest graduation rates- where the arts could have the greatest impact- students have the least opportunity to participate in arts learning.”

The report goes on to state that in 2007-2008 close to one-third of all New York City schools had no certified arts teachers on staff and that there was a 63 percent decline in spending on arts supplies from the previous year.

What I find interesting about these two stories- my brief reflection on Teachers Choice and the report from the Center for Arts Education- is that both shine floodlights on the fact that funding the arts in New York City public schools is dismal at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few schools out there who actually devote more of their budget to the arts, beyond that of Teachers Choice and bake sales. But for the most part, a school’s budget allocation for arts programs stands at 2.9 percent on average, according to the Center for Arts Education report. That means schools devote less than 3 percent of the total money they have available each year for funding their arts curriculum and programs, if they have an arts curriculum or program at all (currently, 7 percent of elementary schools and 9 percent of middle schools in New York City have no arts education at all, which is completely out of compliance with state regulations).

The conclusion of the Center for Arts Education report makes several policy recommendations for New York City schools, including:

  • Expand course offerings in the arts
  • Ensure that all schools have certified arts teachers
  • Expand student access to the city’s cultural arts sector
  • Require adequate classroom space for arts instruction

The problem is that each of the above recommendations, as well as others, requires New York City to make hard choices about how to truly begin acknowledging and financially supporting arts education. Still, there’s a part of me, the part that wears the rose-colored glasses, that says NOW is the time, in the midst of an economic downturn, to begin making a stronger case for increased funding and compliance with state regulations. Now is the time because when the economy is in a better state money will eventually be available and we want to be ready to reinforce what art educators have been saying for a long time: The shoe does fit, and yes, we have to pay for it.