Are the Arts a Luxury?

Volume 111, No. 9September, 2011

K.C. Boyle

Of course not – but it’s time the city woke up and realized it

When times are bad, teachers and the arts make easy targets. True to form, New York City has indeed cut spending on education during this recession. However, this has not gone down without a fight. There have been fierce battles between concerned teachers, parents and elected officials.

In the end, the city’s budget cuts did not produce teacher layoffs but still resulted in a 2.4 percent average cut to the city’s schools.

Although it is not entirely clear which programs each individual school will cut right now, watchdog groups such as the Center for Arts Education have concluded that art and music education are the most likely to see a decrease in funding. Furthermore, in June, the center released a study that indicates arts education has become a clear target for spending cuts at the Department of Education.

According to the study, funds for musical instruments and arts supplies have dropped by nearly 80 percent or $8.4 million over the last four years. In addition, the study also found that 23 percent of New York City public schools have no full or part-time licensed art teachers.

“Schools are really disinvesting in a well-rounded rich curriculum that provides students with less of an opportunity to develop innovative and critical thinking skills,” said Doug Israel, the director of research and policy at the Center for Arts Education. Israel also pointed out “New York City Public Schools are only spending on average $2 per student on art supplies and musical instruments. So the question is, what can you really buy with $2? A pack of guitar strings or a box of crayons?”

In the city that many consider to be the art and music capital of the world, there is no shortage of advocates speaking out against the city’s current educational policies.

Some critics insist that teachers and principals have been forced to focus more on standardized test scores than on a well-rounded liberal arts education that emphasizes the importance of fine arts and music in addition to standard disciplines such as math and science.

“When principals are being evaluated on performance, the first place people are going to cut are art and music, things they may think are not a part of standard education,” said New York City Council member Robert Jackson, who also serves as the chair of the Education Committee.

Despite the decline in arts education spending, Mayor Bloomberg often cites graduation rates – which have risen over 40 percent since 2005 – as an indicator that public schools are heading in the right direction.

Critics believe the majority of the 1.1 million New York City students are unprepared for college. “While we may be moving more students out of high school, they may not necessarily be prepared for that next level of work,” said the Center for Arts Education’s Doug Israel.

In June, Mayor Bloomberg himself announced that although graduation rates are on the rise, close to 65 percent of students are still not prepared for college. His conclusion was based on criteria established by the New York State Regents Board which requires students to achieve a score of 80 or above on state exams.

While much can be said about the subjectivity of test scores and statistics, many education advocates point out that students and parents feel that arts education is an essential component to a rich liberal arts education.

“Parents who know about art, know that a well-rounded education is best for students,” said Council member Jackson. City officials also acknowledge an uphill battle with funding art education as the nation emerges from a deep recession. With another rocky budget season on the horizon next year, Jackson urges arts advocates to keep the pressure on in an effort to avoid catastrophic cuts next year.

To get involved in these efforts, contact my office at or (212) 245-4802, ext. 176.

This story originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For reprint requests, send an e-mail to editor Mikael Elsila at