Restoring the Balance: Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s new legislation uses arts to improve student achievement and redress inequity

The bill, which would redress decades of inequality in arts access, has broad support but faces a long journey in Congress.

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One day when he was 13 years old, Beaverton native Brooks Ashmanskas and other students stayed late to help their art teacher hang posters of student art. She played some recorded music to brighten the mood, and Ashmanskas sang along. “You have a really beautiful voice,” the teacher told him as he was leaving. No one had ever told him that before. She urged him to talk to the school’s drama teacher. 


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That one moment gave Ashmanskas the confidence to explore theater. And fortunately, both Highland Park Junior High and Beaverton High School had good drama programs that afforded him the opportunity to do so. They launched Ashmanksas into what’s now a 35-year career as a Tony Award-nominated working actor.  

US Rep. Suzanne Bonamici at virtual press conference.

Ashmanskas wants other students to have those same opportunities. That’s why he was telling his story last month at an online press conference that announced the introduction of an ambitious new arts education bill introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. The legislation would help redress decades of inequitable access to arts education, and give the children of middle class and poor families the tools that can help improve their academic performance, increase their chances of going to college, and help them become more effective, creative and innovative workers — whether in the arts or in any other job.

The young Ashmanskas clearly possessed a talent for performance. But he said he’d never have made it from Beaverton to Broadway without help from his arts teachers. “On Broadway, everyone is talented,” he recalled during the press conference. “What sets one apart is their belief in their talent, their confidence. This is where arts educators come into play.” 

At that most important time in life, it’s critical, Ashmanskas said, for students to find mentors who can support, nurture, challenge, and celebrate their emerging talents. And not just for would-be artists. “I can’t think of one person who doesn’t have a similar story ,” he said, “whether they ended up working in the arts or not.”

Brooks Ashmanskas at virtual press conference.

Unfortunately, those opportunities have become rarer for students, in Oregon and beyond, after decades of cuts to arts education in the wake of tax limitation initiatives that helped defund public school arts budgets.

Congresswoman Bonamici, the lead sponsor of the new arts education bill, saw the impact of those cuts first hand. “I was raised by a mother who was a piano teacher and artist,” she said in opening remarks, recalling how arts programs were often the first to be cut from public schools like those her own children attended. 

Sponsor

The Beaverton Democrat chairs the Congressional STEAM caucus, which aims to redress the imbalance in education funding by adding that all-important A (for arts) into the formula that has recently focused on sciences, technology and math, at the expense of the creative and innovative thinking the arts and humanities can inspire. She noted that arts education has been neglected because earlier education “reform” efforts such as No Child Left Behind excluded much of it from testable — and therefore, fundable — subjects. Her bill, which would help redress that mistake, is the culmination of years of advocacy for arts education. In 2016, Bonamici received the Congressional Arts Leadership Award, in part honoring her efforts the previous year to include arts education into that year’s massive education bill overhaul. 

Rep. Bonamici visits students at Beaverton‘s Sato Elementary School. Photo: Office of Rep. Bonamici.

Legislation as complex as this is usually constructed with help from experts. Bonamici worked closely with organizations such as Americans for the Arts and Grantmakers in the Arts. The package she introduced last month seems cannily designed to avoid the objections customarily — and usually inaccurately — raised against arts education funding.

Policy Prescriptions

For example, the bill neither raises taxes nor appropriates new taxpayer funds. (You can read the full text, replete with arcane bureaucratic references, here.) Instead, it opens funding pipelines by ensuring that arts education and arts integration are allowable uses under existing programs such as Community Development Block Grants. Bonamici has long pushed for educational funding via other programs such as workforce training. 

It also specifies how states (including juvenile justice and delinquency prevention agencies) and local education agencies can better support schools and teachers. And it helps schools partner with community and arts organizations to provide arts ed through after-school and summer learning programs. 

Infographic courtesy Rep. Bonamici’s office.

The bill also avoids the “throwing money at the problem” criticism that, many argue, never gets applied to bloated, ineffective military spending or tax policy that benefits the rich without trickling down below the one percent and other wealthy citizens. The bill imposes or restores a number of reporting, assessment and accountability requirements (see infographic below) upon stage agencies and their partners. It’s also evidence-based, requiring collection of data that can guide informed policy, including average instructional time, number of courses, pupil/teacher ratio, evaluation of arts courses already offered, and more. 

Arts Boost Creativity

Bonamici’s virtual press conference mustered an impressive range of supporters, including policy masters such as Dr. Wanda Knight, president-elect of the National Art Education Association; National Association of Music Merchandisers Foundation Executive Director Mary Luehrsen, singer Josh Groban, and others who have benefited from arts education.

Conference participants made the case — familiar to ArtsWatch readers who’ve followed ArtsWatch’s Art of Learning series — for the arts’ value in both the classroom and in subsequent careers. 

Congressional Arts Caucus Co-Chair Congresswoman Chellie Pingree emphasized how she’s seen arts education help students learn how to solve problems. The Democratic representative from rural Maine cited research on how arts education improves child brain development and helps build confidence, as Ashmanskas’s story demonstrated. 

Arts education also increases student literacy, improves performance in math, and more, said Grantmakers in the Arts President and CEO Eddie Torres, citing longitudinal studies. Early childhood arts education, Torres said, ignites a love of learning and expressing creativity and individuality that ripples through the rest of their studies. Those effects continue even after students graduate, benefiting the rest of us.

Perhaps anticipating attacks along the lines of “why are taxpayers subsidizing ballet dancers?” (as if those jobs were any easier or less worthy than others), all speakers went out of their way to emphasize the value of arts ed — not necessarily for making professional artists like Ashmanskas, but for helping students acquire skills used in almost all professions. 

“Arts education isn’t just important for students,” Bonamici said. “We need creative critical thinkers and innovative people to solve the challenges of the future.” 

Advancing Equity

Torres, who grew up in the South Bronx’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, highlighted a less-renowned advantage of arts education: It helps redress the inequities institutionalized by our property-tax funded school system, which extends privileges to those from wealthier, whiter neighborhoods that help perpetuate America’s rising inequality down the generations. 

“High-poverty schools get only half the amount of arts education” compared to others, he said, citing extensive studies. “Where there are few or no arts classes, students experience higher dropout rates and declines in core academic performance.” 

By contrast, Torres continued, when disadvantaged students are able to be involved in the arts, they outperform peers who aren’t, and those students experience dramatic reductions in disciplinary actions, earn higher test scores and other achievement indicators, and gain a higher probability of attending college. Investment in arts education advances equity and justice, not just arts.

Grantmakers in the Arts President and CEO Eddie Torres at virtual press conference.

With the pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income students, these political and cultural leaders argue, it’s even more urgent to use arts education to help give all students a fair chance to succeed regardless of their zip codes. Bonamici pointed out that stuck-at-home students were creating and enjoying music and videos. Arts “allow students to have a means of expression and be creative during this frustrating and challenging time for students and families,” she said. “It gives them another way to connect to people and express what they’re feeling. The pandemic makes this legislation even more important. The arts offer the opportunity to help us heal, to bring people together.”

Knowing how hard the pandemic has hit today’s students made their appearance the high point of the virtual press conference. Northwest Children’s Theater student Viola Lo Forti DeVigal and Play it Forward student Maite Limon-Guzman’s performances of poetry and piano music, respectively, augmented testimonials by Beaverton School District’s Arts & Communication Magnet Academy students. They showed exactly how kids benefit from increased arts education support. They made the policy discussion feel less abstract, more here and now.

Political Pathway

When introduced, the Arts Education for All Act had already been endorsed by 255 organizations (including local luminaries such as Portland Center Stage and The Portland Ballet) and various individuals, with more expected.

The legislation, which Torres called the most comprehensive arts education package ever introduced in Congress, faces a long road to approval from its October introduction. Its next stop is likely the House Education and Labor Committee, where it would receive a hearing, committee markup, and then a floor vote. The timing for those steps is still to be determined. At the moment, Congress faces other pressing matters. 

Will it become law? With Republicans favored by many political observers to again take control of the House next year through a combination of voter suppression laws and extreme gerrymandering, I asked Bonamici whether the sponsors had managed to attract any bipartisan support. The answer: they’re working on it. Pingree underlined the bill’s appeal to rural areas, which presumably should attract some Republican sponsors.

But today’s McCarthy/McConnell Republicans, political observers contend, seem to prioritize power and politics over the public good, which might mean reprises of all the old culture war, rile-up-the-base screeds that Republicans have unleashed against the arts for decades, along the lines of spending hardworking taxpayer money to subsidize ballet dancers and other elitist frivolities. 

Actually, they’re not wrong about it being a battle between elitists and the rest of us. They’re just confusing which side is which. On one side: Bonamici and her fellow equity advocates, who are trying to even the playing field for middle- and working-class students by giving them the tools to become better students and workers, while improving their chances of going to college and redressing historic inequities. 

On the other side, if past is prologue: elitist opponents financed by and acting on behalf of affluent interests, who you can spot by their other votes for subsidies and other breaks to plutocratic corporations and the ruling elite, and against measures to reduce America’s rampant and increasing inequality. They don’t need this bill. The wealthy will always be able to afford to buy their kids all the arts education — and the subsequent career and life advantages — they want. Opponents of public arts education initiatives like this one are effectively declaring that only the rich deserve access to the advantages that arts education can offer everyone.

The bill’s proponents offer some resources to those who want to join the fight.

About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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