Governor comes to Paramus to mark milestone for arts education in NJ

During his year and a half in office, Gov. Phil Murphy has pushed hard on the education component of his agenda. Most often, his call has been for greater emphasis on science and math.

But it was another side of the first-term chief executive that was on display during a stop Monday at Paramus High School.

“Let me proudly declare, I’m a little rusty, but I can tap dance,” he said. “I learned it from being part of a 1974 production, summer youth theater, of ‘No, No, Nanette.’ And I now tap-dance for a living.”

Murphy had come to this central Bergen County school district to tout arts education in the Garden State, and to mark what he called a milestone.

“I’d like to begin by celebrating the fact that New Jersey has reached a milestone of 100% of our public schools offering arts programs,” he said during remarks following a tour of the school that included a dance class and other examples of its arts-education offerings. “And, by the way, when I say we’ve achieved 100% universal access to art programs, we are the only state in the U.S. to do that.”

Participation among students in arts education has climbed from 65% in 2006 to 81% today, educators say.

“That means 250,000 more students are engaged in the arts this year than a decade ago, a quarter million more students,” said Robert Morrison, director of Arts Ed NJ, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting arts education in New Jersey. “That is incredible.”

Among those joining Murphy was Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, the Bergen County Democrat. “Today we are seeing the incredible benefits and impact of an arts education on our students as we witnessed here today this morning live,” she said.

Murphy acknowledged that observers could rightly have assumed his educational focus was solely on so-called STEM topics.

“I’m thrilled to be talking about arts for a change because — I’m guilty as charged — I speak about STEM, science, tech, engineering and math, morning, noon and night,” Murphy said. “Let’s not forget that arts are an incredible part of our state’s educational experience.”

Murphy, who recalled his student days when he sang and danced as president of Harvard’s famed Hasty Pudding Theatricals club, also made note of the fact that a recent ranking of public schools by Education Week put New Jersey ahead of all other states.

“And then when I saw last week, as I’m sure you did as well, that New Jersey public schools are ranked overall #1 in the United States of America, there was no doubt in my mind that our arts programs are a major contributor to our students’ success,” he said.

The governor also offered a suggestion for budding artists in his state:

“Whether you paint, draw, sing, dance, act or write, if you grow up to be a homegrown New Jersey artist, headlining at the VMAs like we saw last week, whether you’re Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, the Jonas Brothers or whether you become a librarian or whatever you become, whatever form of art inspires you, my advice is stick with it.”