An additional $1 million in funding for the South Carolina Arts Commission could help fix South Carolina’s broken public school system, arts advocates say.
The Arts Commission is asking state lawmakers for the money to provide more grants for school programs in music, dance, theater and the visual arts, particularly those in the state’s poor, rural school districts.
Arts advocates see the request as part of a legislative fix to a November state Supreme Court order to correct inequities that deny educational opportunity to students in the state’s poorer schools.
“We think the arts can be part of the solution,” said Betty Plumb, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance.
Research has shown that arts education provides direct and indirect benefits for students, motivating them to work harder and stay in school, and teaching them about teamwork, leadership and creative problem-solving, among other values.
The arts also enhance other academic subjects, said Bradley Wingate, the Greenville school district’s academic specialist for visual and performing arts.
“A teacher may incorporate visual art into history,” Wingate said. “Research shows that students who learn materials through those different modes tend to retain the information longer and are more able to apply it when it’s taken out of context.”
Currently, the Arts Commission spends $800,000 annually on arts-education grants.
“We think that figure needs to be a lot larger,” said Ken May, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. “We have high demand for the funding we already provide. We’re focused on trying to make sure all students have access to the arts in the school day.”
Most arts education classes are funded through local school district revenues. Some poor school districts cannot afford arts education, however, so Arts Commission grants help those districts initiate programs.
“Our state unfortunately has a high rate of poor kids in schools,” Plumb said. “The new money would help to level the playing field for children who live in high-poverty schools districts. It’s bridging the poverty gap.
“It’s a modest amount when you think about all it can do,” Plumb said.
New wave of support
It’s uncertain whether the Legislature will embrace the Arts Commission’s $1 million request, but the state agency has an important ally in new Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, a former music teacher.
“I am fully committed to advancing opportunities for all students in South Carolina to participate in arts-related programs,” Spearman said via email.
Spearman said she wants the state to be a national leader in arts education.
“As a former music teacher for over 18 years, I have a deep appreciation for arts education,” Spearman said. “I want South Carolina to be seen as a national leader in STEAM education — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — and we can get there by continuing our partnerships with the business community, technical colleges and institutions of higher education across the state.”
Spearman served for serveral years in the past as the chair of the Arts in Basic Curriculum steering committee, which oversees one of the Arts Commission’s primary arts education programs.
“It’s great to have such a strong advocate for arts education in the position of superintendent,” May said. “It’s really exciting.”
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat, said prospects for the Arts Commission’s proposal look good this year.
“I think this is a great opportunity to get more arts education funding into our schools,” said Sheheen, who is co-chair of the Senate Arts Caucus, a group of lawmakers who advocate for the arts. “The Arts Commission budget has been shrinking or static for many years. The time is right for an increase.”
However, State Rep. Rita Allison, a Lyman Republican who is co-chair of the House Arts Caucus, was skeptical that more money could be found for arts education at a time when other priorities are looming large and Gov. Nikki Haley is calling for big cuts in state spending.
“There’s not a lot of new money available,” Allison said. “The Arts Commission has been pretty level for quite some time. Whether the Arts Commission’s proposal has a chance with everything else on the table — roads and infrastructure, base student cost — that’s still a question mark.”
Gov. Haley’s budget did not include the additional $1 million for arts education grants, although she supported current Arts Commission funding, urging that current money be used for arts education.
Haley declined to comment further.
“She did not endorse any new funding, so we’d have to cannibalize existing programs for arts education and that’s not desirable or popular with the rest of our constituency,” May said.
In addition to arts education, the Arts Commission provides modest grants to arts organizations across the state, including more than a dozen in Greenville.
Plumb said many state lawmakers, however, appear to be willing to provide more money for arts education.
“We’ve got a lot of support from a lot of legislators,” Plumb said. “We really are saying that we want to raise the education level for the total child. There’s just no reason for another generation of students to not get the quality education they deserve.”
Enhancing local programs
The $1 million could be used especially to expand or help create arts programs in poor districts, May said.
Arts Commission funding, however, would not be limited to high-poverty districts. Grants through one program — the Arts in the Basic Curriculum (or ABC) initiative — are usually modest: a maximum of $7,500, May said.
“The money we provide to ABC sites is pretty unrestricted,” May said. “It can be used in any way that advances their curriculum.”
Grants may be combined with local money to help a school afford a salary for a band or choral teacher, May said. Or a school might use a grant to introduce a new arts discipline, such as dance. Grants also might be used to bring an artist-in-resident to a school or fund a bus trip to a play, a museum or an orchestral concert.
“Our money is often used as startup money for new elements of school’s curriculum,” May said. “The amount of bang we get out of the money we provide is just unbelievable.”
For wealthier districts, such as Greenville County Schools, Arts Commission grants provide teachers with the freedom to offer creative initiatives.
“It gives teachers the latitude to look at large-scale programs and activities that they probably wouldn’t be able to do with local funds,” said Wingate. “Local funds are earmarked for specific activities.”
Monarch Elementary in Greenville County, for instance, was able to use Arts Commission funding to bring artists-in-residence to the school for music, dance and visual art, Wingate said.
“They work with students and teachers, tailoring a program for whatever is best for the school,” Wingate said.
Arts education inspires young people to stay in school, according to Shannon Kelly, director of advocacy at the National Association for Music Education.
“Music has been correlated with higher attendance and graduation rates,” Kelly said. “It’s our position that arts education conveys many benefits to students and should be included as a core subject in all schools.”
Arts education also encourages creative thinking, problem solving, leadership skills, personal confidence and collaborative skills, said Kelly, whose organization represents more than 100,000 current and former music educators.
Kelly cited a recent University of Vermont study that found that music education in particular improves students’ cognitive ability, having a beneficial influence on auditory processing, inferential abilities and ability to focus.
The Atlanta-based South Arts, a research organization, found that Arts Commission grants have helped to raise the quality of school arts programs statewide.
“Schools that do have really robust arts programs are doing that with supplemental state funding,” May said. “The basic allotment that school districts provide schools for arts education is not sufficient to address all arts disciplines.”
Image: Eastside senior Jill Edmonds works on a painting at the Greenville County Schools’ Fine Arts Center