The arts have long been a brackish backwater of public education. And indeed with New York City schools turning out graduates with abysmal reading and math scores, it was perhaps understandable that devoting precious financial and human resources to fostering an appreciation for painting, sculpture, music, dance or theater was not the first priority. And so many of the arts programs that were thrown overboard during the fiscal crisis in the 1970’s have never recovered, resulting in generations of high school graduates whose entire exposure to the arts might have been a single afternoon field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fortunately, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein have recognized there’s something amiss when one of the world’s most culturally sophisticated cities is graduating hundreds of thousands of students with zero artistic appreciation or even awareness.
To right the balance, the Department of Education has announced that all city public schools will be required to maintain strong arts programs. And rather than get mired in new bureaucracies or blindly throw money at the problem and hope for the best, City Hall is borrowing a simple concept from the business world: accountability. Just as the Bloomberg administration holds school principals personally accountable for how their schools perform on meeting math and reading requirements, principals will now also face consequences if the arts fail to flourish. Those principals who don’t succeed in making the arts a significant part of a school’s learning environment may face reassignment; those who meet and exceed expectations may receive pay bonuses.
As Mayor Bloomberg has made education the No. 1 priority of his second term, it’s refreshing to see he’s determined to include the arts as he struggles to drag the public schools into the 21st century.