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Some advocates think it might be time to ditch arts education as we know it

Arts advocates are trying new tactics: cold hard numbers, and an in-school overhaul.

Nobody gets into politics or education with the dream of taking arts education away from children.

We get it. There is no evil bad guy out there, stroking his evil bad guy beard and cackling as he watches the arts being slowly siphoned away from kids in struggling schools.

But those cuts are happening, thanks to dwindling budgets and less time for anything that isn’t test prep.

And the usual hand wringing just isn’t going to cut it.

That’s why arts advocates are trying some new tactics to sell you, me, lawmakers and educators on arts education.

A $150 bus trip is the only difference between kids who get a field trip, and kids who don’t

In Ypsilanti, $150 is all it takes to get kids from their school to this arts and learning center in Ann Arbor called 826 Michigan.  

But this year, their school just didn’t have the money for the bus.

Parents and donors could only pull together enough to send some of the kids. Mrs. Winter’s fourth-grade class made the list.

They walk into 826 Michigan and they instantly buy into what the adults there tell them: that the evil Dr. Blotch, a maniacal grammar and writing fanatic, has lost his diary. It’s been stolen. But who is the culprit?

A fairly elaborate, high-energy performance follows, with various suspects presenting alibis and evidence.

Even before the kids are told to draw up their detective badges, act out their parts, solve the mystery and write the most creative punishment they can imagine for the diary thief, their energy is off the charts.

“Dear Doctor Blotch,” reads one kid. “I am Knai the evil! Luckily for you, I have discovered who stole your diary. It was Edna! Whenever you ask her a question, she makes up an excuse. I think you should glue her legs to the ceiling for a dozen years.”

Their teacher, Cathy Winters, says the kids who never talk in class get so into this kind of arts lesson.

“It gives you chills to hear those kids talk like that. I have a new student who just started today and he’s already raising his hand and getting into it.”

Winters says she’s cutting way back on art time in her own class – she’s got to get her kids ready for the standardized tests and that takes more and more time.  

All of this has arts advocates working overtime, trying to convince you, me, lawmakers, school districts, that arts are just as important as the stuff on that standardized test.

Putting cold, hard numbers on the arts

And like with so many things, there’s the money argument and the love argument.  

First, the money side.  Advocates are piling on cold, hard numbers to argue that arts make kids smarter at math, reading, on tests.

You guessed this already, but this one is especially for lawmakers.

“Because it’s just the language that they speak right now,” says Sarah Triplett. She knows what she’s talking about. She used to be staffer at the Capitol. Now, she works for ArtServe, a big arts advocacy group in Michigan.  

"With so little dollars being available to distribute to various programs, you really have to make the case for return on investment," she says.

That’s lawmaker speak for "show me the money."

Or in this case, show me the stats. Groups like ArtServe and Americans for the Arts have tons of stats lately, even about how many jobs the arts represent in this state.  

“It’s nearly 75,000 people working in over 9,000 businesses,” Triplett says, quoting from a now-annual study ArtServe puts out about the economic boost Michigan gets from the arts.

And if this sounds wonky to you, consider that it just may be working.

State funding for the arts used to be in the tens of millions of dollars range. When the recession hit, Lansing zeroed out that funding.

In the last few years though, Gov. Rick Snyder has been adding more money back in to the arts budget – it was up to more than $7 million last year.

That money gets funneled through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs – an organization that hands the money on to groups like 826 Michigan and several others who do arts education.  

The case for falling back in love with arts education

But then, there’s the love argument.

This camp says, forget the stats – nobody’s going to save the arts because a few studies claim it makes kids better at math.

“If I were a school administrator, and wanted to improve the math scores among the students in my school, I would not hire another music teacher, I'd hire another math teacher," says John Kratus, a music education professor at Michigan State University.

Kratus says, look, maybe schools have been going about arts the wrong way.

Rather than telling kids that art in school means playing the clarinet for 12 years, “What it is that we’re teaching should instill children with such a passion that it becomes almost impossible for a community to eliminate it,” Kratus says.  

The proof is already clear at MSU, he says.

Recently, students asked him to teach a new course: songwriting.

He says the course was so popular, he had to repeatedly ask students to keep doing their work in other courses – not just hole themselves up in their rooms and write songs.

“And at the end of the semester, two students quit school to become songwriters,” says Kratus. “They ended up coming back after a couple of years. But I had never seen that kind of passion before in a music class.”

A little more guitar, a little less tuba – Kratus says it’s the kind of model a few of Michigan’s smaller schools are already trying.

At Leland High School in northern Michigan, music and drama teacher Jeremy Evans found it made more sense to get rid of the orchestra (not enough kids, for one thing) and instead focus on musical theater, songwriting and choir.

Team Love or Team Money, the kids don’t care   

But whether it’s the stats or the passion, arts advocates just want Michiganders to move beyond the “arts are nice, but they’re not math or science” perspective.

So do the fourth-graders in Ypsilanti.

As the board their bus back to school, they wave and call back towards the arts center.  

They’re just hoping somebody finds the money for next year’s school bus.

*Editor's note: The original title of this story - "It might be time to ditch arts education as we know it" - was changed to assign attribution to that sentiment.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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