Public Policy Forum Blog

What is Milwaukee’s appetite for community-wide arts education? Food for thought from ten cities

With the biennial budget process in full swing, Wisconsinites of all political colors are debating policy priorities and how to divide up resources to address them. Because it receives the largest budget appropriation of any single program, K-12 education is the policy arena that traditionally sparks the liveliest debate of all. (State aid to school districts currently represents roughly 35% of the state general fund.) Recent issues to cross the news wires, blogosphere, and Joint Finance Committee docket cover a vast array of complex facets of Wisconsin’s public education landscape – from expansion of school choice, to charter school oversight, to the implementation of accountability measures such as the Common Core State Standards.

Beneath the din surrounding these immediate needs and how to fund them lies a local and national discussion about what role the arts could play in the educational landscape. Some argue that arts education is critical to delivering a high-quality education to every student; cultivating the skills crucial for success in a 21st century economy such as innovation, collaboration, problem solving, and flexibility; and fostering a generation of engaged, creative citizens poised to make meaningful contributions to society as a whole. Those making this case wish to focus discussion on how a community can mobilize itself to bring the arts forward as a central element in every child’s educational experience, as a path to lifelong success for the student and for the community-at-large.

Today, the Public Policy Forum releases a report that provides insight into that question. In the first of a series of reports funded by the Herzfeld Foundation to assess the potential for implementing a community-wide arts education model in Milwaukee, we provide a window into the current state of large-scale arts education efforts both locally and across the country. The intent is to inform discussions, planning, and future decisions related to the shape of a potential arts education framework in Milwaukee.

The report begins with a brief summary of the literature regarding the link between arts education and positive educational, social, and emotional outcomes for students. We point out that the research literature cannot establish a robust causal link, but it does lend support to several theories that make compelling cases for investing further in arts education – for example, as a way to equalize access so that arts experiences are available to all students no matter what school they attend.

Next, as a frame of reference on current local investments in arts education, we analyze Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) spending on arts education over the past decade. We find that spending on arts specialists within the school system has been decreasing over time, while spending on partnerships with community-based arts education providers has been on the rise. This finding suggests that any efforts toward equitable access to arts learning for all MPS students will need to engage, coordinate, and monitor these external providers. In addition, we highlight several efforts currently underway in Milwaukee to increase access to arts education and to strengthen quality, both in schools and after school. 

Against this backdrop, we then conduct a scan of 10 community-wide arts education models throughout the United States. Among the themes to emerge from the scan:

  1. Projects tend to arise from an underlying belief that the arts are integral to developing higher-order critical thinking and creative skills thought to be essential in a 21st century workforce.
  2. A common overriding goal is to expand equitable access to arts education to all public school students. As such, all of the models we investigated concentrate on in-school programming, building in out-of-school opportunities as an outgrowth of expanded in-school access.
  3. Evolution from idea to community-wide framework tends to follow a consistent pattern. The typical starting point is an initial survey identifying inequitable access to arts education. From there, a broad-based partnership of high-level stakeholders is formed to carry out a one- to two-year strategic planning process, often funded by a national foundation, that centers on setting goals, securing resources, and creating evaluation mechanisms.
  4. The sites that appear to be most successful embed capacity-building components into their models, such as professional development for teachers and artists, administrative staffing to coordinate schools and arts providers, and advocacy at the local, state, and federal levels to generate political and financial support for the programs.

During the next research phase, we will be conducting a deeper case study analysis of the models in Boston, Colorado, Dallas, and Portland. These four sites appear to have found some success in expanding access to arts learning, building promising ways to measure the impact of arts education, or establishing sustainability for their efforts. The case studies will delve into each city’s program components, performance measurements, and funding and governance structures.

Future reports will more closely examine the current state of arts education in Milwaukee, map the efforts to improve access and quality that are currently underway, compare these assets and efforts to the common practices revealed through the case studies of model cities, and propose policy options for building a sustainable community-wide arts education delivery model in Milwaukee.

Anne Chapman