A Big Policy Win for K-12 Arts Education in New York City

I cannot recall a K-12 education issue in New York City higher profile than that of the renewal of the 2002 School Governance Law, aka “Mayoral Control of the Schools.”

Everyone concerned with K-12 education in New York City, as well many across the country have been watching this issue to see whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg would retain near absolute control of the schools when the law was up for renewal or whether change would be made, effectively diminishing his control of the schools.
For a good year and a half, hearing have been held, papers written, commissions convened, giant amounts of media space taken, and the highest profile political battle was waged. Last week, it appears to have drawn to a conclusion with a deal made between leaders of the NY State Senate and Mayor Bloomberg. 
Among the amendments to the law on school governance will be the creation of an independent arts education council, to serve as a type of watchdog over the New York City public schools. This will be written into New York State Law. Of course, the Senate deal needs to be agreed to be the Assembly, which has its own bill, but most people believe the Senate deal will hold up.
It is a very, very big win for what in and of itself is a relatively small but important step forward.
I have been in arts education one way or the other since about 1982, when I was performing in public and private schools around New York City while getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Juilliard School.
I have always been told that, and witnessed, arts education as something that would forever be many rungs down the ladder when it came to educational priorities. The exceptions have been truly rare and almost never part of a planned and sustained sequence, mainly because there really was no real sustained work taking place on the policy and advocacy level. Advocacy and arts is and has been a very nascent and I would argue ham-fisted endeavor.
With something as big as mayoral control of the schools, I doubt many believed that arts education could have become a point of contention in the debate and negotiations between the State Senate, and one of the most powerful men in the world, who also happens to reportedly be the single largest donor to arts in America.
And, you must consider that the Mayor’s position was that he would accept no compromise, meaning no changes to the law. And, believe me, this Mayor is loathe to compromise. He’s one tough customer, as my dad used to say.
A few weeks ago, State Senator John Sampson was publicly sparring with Mayor Bloomberg over arts education as a key point of contention between Senate leadership and the Mayor. And any number of senators spoke loudly and advocated for the arts education amendment.
I heard it the radio; read it in the papers: arts education getting top billing.
It was what I was always told could not happen. Arts Education had leapt up to the top few issues within the most important K-12 policy debate in New York City and State over perhaps the past thirty years. An issue big enough for Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education to get involved with the type of local issue that such federal officials always avoid.
You’re probably thinking that I am exaggerating. Or that I am an hysteric. I am not, I promise.
There are many who will say: “so what, the Council is meaningless. It has no real power and authority.”
To that I answer that we shall see how the Council shapes up, and that one way or the other being able to move the arts into this high profile arena sets the stage for other legislation that will do more and better. Remember, this did not happen by chance. What made this possible was thoughful work in policy, the development of a web of relationships, good communications, and a clear interest and willingness on behalf of people who are not from the arts education ghetto, so to speak, where most of the talk of advocacy and policy has taken place during my professional life.
This type of work in policy and advocacy has to be built in stages. I will take this win, and look forward greatly to a number of other policy and advocacy initiatives in the pipeline as you read this.