Bridging the Gap: Community-Focused Arts Education Policy

Kate R. Fitzpatrick, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, argues that Chicago's system of local school control has resulted in a lack of funding for arts education. However, with some tweaking, the system of local school control could provide a compelling alternative for school systems. Although decentralized at the district level, school systems now operate within an increasingly centralized and mandated national education policy.

Chicago was one of the first large American school districts to implement school reform aimed at decentralizing the decision-making process. Power over educational decisions and school administration fell not only to school principals, but also to parents and community members. By decentralizing decision-making processes and creating more local control, the hope was that principals, community members, and parents would be able to adjust school programs and resource allocations according to local needs. The reforms, first passed in Chicago in 1988 and then amended in 1995, sought to increase the academic achievement of the failing schools within the district. "These major changes," Fitzpatrick writes, "were based on the theory that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or home life, can learn and succeed in school, and that school-based management can help facilitate that process" (107).

Flexibility within their reform strategies was a key aspect because localized control meant that schools were now responsible for their individual students. Funding allocated to schools could be spent to fulfill individualized improvement goals. Administrative decisions were also made locally. Principals and other administrators were now directly responsible to their communities. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick notes, the arts have not thrived within Chicago schools even though they were included within the goals of the reform processes. Because there is no requirement for elementary students to take any arts courses, art programs are left up to the school's principal and its publicly elected local school council (LSC), and so vary from school to school. It is not until high school that there is a district mandate that students must participate in some form of the arts (two full years of arts instruction, one year of music and one year of art). Furthermore, because of the school-based budgetary decisions, arts educators often do not have access to a uniform pool of resources. The consequence is that arts education remains largely underfunded in the context of tight school budgets.

Fitzpatrick recognizes the source of the struggles within the school-based management system for the arts, but she also thinks such a decentralized and localized structure "creates some exciting opportunities for the reimagination and restructuring of arts education" (110). Some of these opportunities include programs that are more relevant to their local community; better engagement with the local community through community-focused programs, concerts, and exhibitions; and an improved public perception of the value of arts education, especially among parents and other community members who may have no direct involvement with the arts themselves.

Overall, Fitzpatrick believes that local school control and school-based management can offer flexibility to those looking to reform schools in ways that best address localized needs. However, a balance must be found between localized needs and centralized needs for "equity and clearly articulated policies" (110). By creating more stringent arts requirements for students and encouraging arts educators to tailor their programs to the needs of their students, schools, and communities, local school control based systems can better ensure equal access to comprehensive arts education for students.

Fitzpatrick, Kate R. 2012. "School-Based Management and Arts Education: Lessons from Chicago." Arts Education Policy Review 113(3): 106–111. doi:10.1080/10632913.2012.687340.

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