(in Urban Politics #322, May 8, 2012)

by Nick Licata, Seattle City Council
with assistance from legislative aide Frank Video

I recently came across this interesting article ( published by Studio 360 describing the Obama Administration’s $14.7 million Turnaround Arts Initiative ( The initiative seeks to utilize arts education to improve eight of the nation’s worst performing schools over the next three years. One can argue whether that is nearly enough to address our educational system’s needs, but underlying it is a belief that I share: we need to go beyond testing students in reading, writing and arithmetic.

That is a concern I had upon learning that none of the arts organization applicants for Families and Education Levy (F&E) 2012-2013 funding were deemed qualified to receive funding. Although other types of organizations were also not chosen because they couldn’t guarantee measureable results, there was uncertainty over how to measure the influence of arts education in helping students think creatively.

In response, the City’s Office for Education (OFE: will conduct four workshops for prospective applicants to 2013-2014 F&E funding. The workshops will take place for a full day on Monday, June 25; a half day on Tuesday, June 26; a full day on Wednesday, August 1; and a half day on Thursday, August 2. For the June 26 & August 2 workshops, OFE staff will meet with any arts education group requesting a one-on-one consultation. The workshops will present the Seattle School District’s general educational data and describe how FEL uses that data. School District staff will also be on hand to answer questions and to provide one-on-one instruction. Details on the workshops have yet to be published, so keep an eye on OFE’s web site ( for information on locations and times.

While the arts are designated as a core subject area in Washington State schools, funding for arts instruction lags far behind that of other core subjects. Addressing that issue in 2008, I wrote about an arts education bill (UP #264: I was pursuing in our state legislature. The bill would have redirected lottery proceeds dedicated to paying baseball stadium bonds to a state-wide School Arts Program once the bonds were retired. The Washington State Arts Commission would have created a School Arts Program Committee and a competitive grant process to support arts-infused curriculum, programs, and projects in public schools. Unfortunately, over the three years it came up for a vote, it failed to pass both houses.

Our state’s schools may have made arts a core subject in part due to research such as a 1998 finding by Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Americans for the Arts. It found among other things that young people who regularly participate in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement.

But test scores alone cannot determine a student’s success in life. “Stringent standardized testing requirements have forced schools and teachers to obsess over test scores at the cost of teaching critical thinking and creativity. The very nature of standardized testing is that new ideas are punished,” says Diane Ravitch in the Studio 360 article. She’s the author of The Life and Death of the Great American School System and served in the Department of Education in both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

She adds “If we have a generation of kids who can’t think for themselves, our whole country is in trouble. Nations that have the highest test scores have the lowest creativity scores. The more we raise our test scores, the more we sacrifice creativity.”

The solution, Ravitch believes, is not more federal dollars. Support needs to come from local and state government, which must consider music and visual arts as valuable as reading and math. We are fortunate that in Seattle schools, the arts are a basic subject. I appreciate that OFE has pledged to reach out to those who didn’t qualify for 2012-2013 F&E funding. With the help of the workshops mentioned above, arts education applicants should be able to qualify for 2013-2014 funding. When they do, it will greatly benefit Seattle students.

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