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What’s the State of the Arts in New Jersey’s Public-School Classrooms Today?

Most students have access to arts offerings, but advocates worry about cutbacks – including time taken away to prepare kids for PARCC exams

student art
Student art from Wallkill Valley Regional High School was on display during the arts education summit.

A few key statistics say a lot about arts education in New Jersey.

On one hand, 97 percent of all students have access to classes on the fine arts, music or drama, according to the latest state data, and 94 percent of schools provide such classes.

Those percentages have on the upswing in recent years, which is a point of pride for the schools and arts-education advocates.

But there are more discouraging trends, too, including the fact that one in five New Jersey schools doesn’t offer both music and visual arts, as required by the state.

And a recent survey found that four of five arts teachers say there is less time available for their subject in the face of new state testing and accountability in language arts and math. Some report that are no arts classes at all for extended periods in some schools, as they focus on literacy and math skills to meet the new standardized assessments.

These conflicting trends were on full display yesterday when more than 100 arts educators came together for the Arts Ed Summit to hear from a range of policymakers and advocates about the present and future of arts education.

Former governor calls for action

The first such summit in a decade, the meeting was held in Monroe Township, and featured a keynote talk from former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr., who in the late 1980s helped promote arts education as a central part of the curriculum and yesterday issued a clarion call for a new campaign in support of arts in the schools.

Credit: David Kelly Crow
Former Gov. Thomas Kean speaks about the importance of arts education.

“I guess what I’m telling you is don’t accept that something will get done in a good cause like the arts,” he said to the gathering held at the conference center of the state’s principals and supervisors association. “Work for it. Do what you have to do to get it. Be a little militant if you have to be militant.”

Following Kean’s talk was a panel discussion of top stakeholders and arts advocates, from the president of the State Board of Education to the head of the New Jersey Education Association.

Value of a well-rounded education

While there was some disagreement over the value of the new testing, each panelist spoke of the importance of the arts in educating the “whole child.” All agreed that both schools and the state need to make sure arts-education mandates are being met.

Mark Biedron, president of the State Board of Education, said a serious review currently underway will reinforce such priorities.

“This is really a tipping point right now in the area of education, and where we are with our curriculum and where we might be going in the next 10 or 15 years,” Biedron said.

There was no less of a consensus when it came to the challenges facing arts education, including tight funding of schools overall under the state’s property tax cap and facilities needs that often leave arts programs as the first to lose their classrooms.

The summit also included discussions about what steps should be taken next and questions about where influence and power reside in the arts-education debate.

“There is a tremendous amount of support that we now need to marshal and work in concert with,” said Bob Morrison, chairman of New Jersey Arts Education Partnership.

The coalition has launched a multi-year campaign, titled ArtsEdNow, to promote arts education both at the local level and statewide.

Speaking after the conference, Morrison said new mandates or regulations are not necessarily needed if the state would enforce standards and requirements already in place.

“If the policies in place were just implemented appropriately, that would be a big step forward,” he said.

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