Arts groups take fight to Capitol Hill

March 20, 1992|By Cox News Service

WASHINGTON -- America's besieged arts community fought back yesterday against threats ranging from cuts in music classes in financially pressed public schools to conservative critics who want to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts.

On Capitol Hill, arts advocates released a national poll showing that most Americans support continued federal funding of the arts and believe that music and other arts courses should be part of a public school curriculum. Several hundred members of the American Council for the Arts, a national coalition of cultural groups, buttonholed members of Congress in a push for federal support.

The lobbying comes atop well-orchestrated protests by music educators who are concerned about arts programs being left out of the "America 2000" education plan that the Bush Administration has proposed for improving the nation's schools.

Arts activists are also worried that school administrators are looking to arts and music as early programs to eliminate as declining tax revenues force budget cuts.

"Nationally, there is a trend when hard times come to consider arts teachers disposable to some degree," said Gwyn Stell, Georgia president of the Music Educators National Conference. Situations vary, of course, depending on the commitment to the arts by local school boards.

An increasing reliance on standardized tests to measure performance of students and schools has increased this jeopardy, Ms. Stell said in a telephone interview. Arts abili

ties or knowledge are rarely included in these evaluations, so administrators tend to put more resources in subjects that will be tested.

Meanwhile, the abrupt departure of John Frohnmayer as head of the National Endowment for the Arts has prompted concern about the future of the agency that allocates federal dollars to artists and their works.

"The issue is the very survival of the NEA," warned Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, in a letter to his colleagues.

Senator Metzenbaum was among several members of Congress attending a breakfast yesterday sponsored by the American Council for the Arts. There the group released "Americans and the Arts VI," a survey conducted by pollster Lou Harris.

The study was focused to "reflect the changing environment facing the arts," reported Mr. Harris. "Since the last study, conducted in 1987, the role of the federal government supporting the arts has come into serious question.

"Across the country, there have been heavy cutbacks in the teaching of the arts in the school systems . . .," he wrote. "Finally, the nation has been going through a deeply felt recession, which likely has affected attendance at, contributions to and participation in the arts."

The survey, however, found that 60 percent of Americans support federal funding of the arts and 76 percent believe that art courses should be paid for by the school system as part of the regular curriculum.

Nine out of 10 respondents felt that arts courses in education are important for children. Indeed, more than 60 percent thought arts courses were as important as history, geography, math and science.

Overall, the poll, which was funded by a grant from Phillip Morris Companies, showed widespread support for federal assistance for the arts and for arts education.

The Bush administration has come under criticism for not including arts in its plan to raise educational standards.

"It's a serious flaw in "America 2000" that no arts are mentioned," said Harriet Fulbright, a spokeswoman for the Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum. "Arts are very much an integral part of education."

To protest the omission, a high school chorus stopped in the middle of a concert this month in Maryville, Tenn., -- the hometown of Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

An education department spokeswoman said arts were not purposefully excluded from the administration's list of educational goals. Arts were "just not explicitly mentioned," said Etta Fielek.

Recalling that Mr. Alexander has played the piano since boyhood, she said the education secretary is working with the arts community to keep art a central part of American schools.

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