Advocates Push Bill for NC Arts Education Credit

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Do you know that students in North Carolina can graduate from high school without ever having any arts education?

A group of arts advocates are making a last-ditch effort to lobby for the passage of House Bill 138, which would modify state curriculum requirements so that any student graduating high school would have to complete one arts education credit at some point in grades 6-12. Arts North Carolina, which has been lobbying for the requirement for the past 10 years, is hoping that the bill, which passed last year’s House session, will clear the Senate this legislative session. If not, the bill will expire, and advocates will have to start over from scratch.

Karen Wells, executive director of Arts North Carolina, says most North Carolinians would be “shocked” to learn that North Carolina has no policy regarding students receiving any arts education at any time in kindergarten through grade 12. Although urban areas, such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, have exemplary "choice" programs, she notes that rural school districts with few financial resources often look to non-required programs to make difficult budget cuts. “It is possible that a child enter kindergarten and never encounter an arts educator,” she says. “This is why Arts North Carolina began the long journey to an arts education policy over 10 years ago.”

Christie Lynch Ebert, section chief with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s K-12 Curriculum and Instruction Division, says the agency and the State Board of Education recognize the importance and value of the arts as part of a balanced, comprehensive and well-rounded education for children in the state. North Carolina has legislation and policy specifying that there is both licensure and a state Standard Course of Study for all four arts disciplines in K-12, she says.  “Additionally, graduation requirements policy from the State Board of Education requires students to complete six elective units, ‘two of which must be any combination of arts education, career technical education or foreign language,’” she says. “The State Board of Education also encourages students to complete an optional concentration, which could be in any of the arts education disciplines.”

Wells counters that the “graduation requirements” Ebert refers to are electives, which means that students can opt out of arts education by, for example, taking a foreign language elective if they are college bound in order to get a jump on college language requirements. Vocational education students are "guided" to courses that reflect their career path, she says, leading them away from arts education.

Arts advocates are planning to promote House Bill 138 at Arts Day 2016 on May 24-25. The annual arts conference draws arts supporters, educators, administrators and artists to the state Capitol to meet with legislators. 

Wells is hopeful. The bill has “strong bipartisan support,” passing in the House by a 96-21 vote, she says. She also notes that the arts are included as a vital part of a “whole” education for students in a new federal law for education, “Every Child Succeeds,” which replaces “No Child Left Behind.” 

“The law will mean clarification of Title 1 funds to be used for arts education, additional federal grants and encouragement to include arts as a part of STEM programs,” she says.

The bill does not propose a “standard" arts requirement that must be taught in the regular school day but instructs the State Board of Education to define a credit that every district can implement, Wells says. “Once the law is passed, we hope the school board will be creative in their definition, to include not only the typical arts education credit in a single discipline but rather a ‘menu’ of options that a system can provide to meet the credit requirements any time in grades 6 through 12.”

 “In my mind for example, if a student wanted to take the three-week Shakespeare intensive at Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, where students meet for two weeks from dawn to late evening and then produce a short version of a Shakespeare play, that should count as a credit,” she says. “If a student participates in the school band, but there is not a credit offered for that experience, there should be. Distance learning is an option, as should be participation in a community orchestra or chorus. And then there are wonderful opportunities to create ‘credits’ that clarify the transition between arts training and life skills/jobs, such as video design.”

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Angie Hays, executive director of North Carolina Theatre Conference in Greensboro, says she advocates for HB 138 because she knows the “incredible impact the arts have on North Carolina children. And I hear the fear in the voices of parents and teachers when arts programs are facing budget cuts or total elimination. Those calls will not stop coming until our legislature makes arts education a requirement for all — not just a luxury for some. HB 138 levels the playing field between rural and metropolitan districts, and sends the message that our state values all children.”

Further, Hays says, arts education nurtures creativity and teaches innovation skills — an expressed need of 21st-century corporate hiring while being a tool to encourage empathy, compassion and understanding. “Arts education makes schools a place where students and teachers want to be,” she says.

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