Arts Education: A Constitutional Right for All Students in New Jersey

February 16, 2012

Visual Arts Center of NJ.

Visual Arts Center of NJ

By Bob Morrison
Chair, New Jersey Arts Education Partnership Governance Committee
CEO, Quadrant Arts Education Research

One of the biggest issues I run into across the state as we discuss the role of arts education as part of the basic education of our children is the ever persistent fact that most people have no idea the policy underpinnings making arts education a right for ALL of our students. Not just the gifted, or the talented, or the economically advantaged.

Arts education in New Jersey is a basic educational right for every child. Period!

So, you may ask yourself… how is this possible? Well, arts education in New Jersey has a very strong grounding in state administrative code and even in the state Constitution itself. That’s right: based on current law, arts education for our students is a fundamental right anchored in the New Jersey Constitution.

Here is how it works:

The New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards

So what are the Core Curriculum Content Standards and why do we have them?

The Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) were first developed in 1996 as an attempt to define the “Thorough” in “Thorough and Efficient education” as required by our state’s Constitution. Standards, by their very nature, describe what all students should know and be able to do upon completion of a thirteen-year public education (K-12). Standards are not a curriculum. They define the results expected but leave the process for achieving these results up to local school districts. In the 1996 CCCS there were seven academic content areas included: Visual and Performing Arts, Comprehensive Health and Physical Education, Language Arts/Literacy, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and World Languages.

In 2009, the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted the most recent version of the Core Curriculum Content Standards. Content standards specify expectations in nine academic content areas: the visual and performing arts, comprehensive health and physical education, language arts literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, world languages, technological literacy, and career education and consumer, family, and life skills. (NJ Administrative Code 6A 8-1.1)

Additionally, in order to successfully complete high school in New Jersey students must meet the states Graduation Requirements, including 5 credits (1 year) in Visual & Performing Arts for High School graduation effective with the 2004-2005 ninth grade class (graduating class of 2008). (NJ Administrative Code 6A 8-1.1)

Core Curriculum Content Standards for the Visual and Performing Arts

So what do the standards call for regarding the visual and performing arts?

In New Jersey, equitable access to arts instruction can only be achieved if the four arts disciplines (Dance, Music, Theater and Visual Arts) are offered throughout the K-12 spectrum as defined by the CCCS. At the K-5 level, it is the expectation that students are given broad-based education through instruction as well as opportunities for participation in each of the four art forms. In grades 6-8, they should gain greater depth of understanding in at least one of those disciplines. In grades 9-12, it is the expectation that students demonstrate competency in at least one arts discipline. These expectations translate into curricular requirements for schools.

Districts are expected to provide opportunities for learning in ALL four arts content areas using sequential instruction taught by highly qualified teachers. This means the arts programs must have the same level of academic rigor and educational validity as any other core subject such as language arts literacy or math.

The CCCS were first adopted by the New Jersey State Board of Education in 1996 revised in 2004 and most recently in 2009. The 2009 standards in the visual and performing arts must be in place in all schools by September of 2012.

Interestingly, many people, including school and district administrators, have no idea what the standards are or what is required. I had one superintendent tell me, “If I had known I was supposed to be providing this instruction, I can assure you our schools would be teaching it.” A superintendent not knowing the educational requirements for our children? That is a scary thought.

However, like they say in the commercial:

But wait… there’s more!

Arts Education and the New Jersey Constitution: A Thorough and Efficient Education

What does any of this have to do with the New Jersey Constitution?

New Jersey is a state with a 120-year-old constitutional guarantee that regardless of residency, its children will receive a “Thorough and Efficient” education.

To be clear, the Constitution states:

“The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.” —New Jersey Constitution, Article VIII, Section IV, paragraph 1

Which brings us to the next logical question: How do we define the terms “Thorough and Efficient” for our state?

This now brings us full circle – back to the Core Curricular Content Standards.

In May of 1997, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the case of Abbott v. Burke on the two main parts of the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Financing Act (CEIFA) signed into law in December of 1996 by Governor Whitman. CEIFA was comprised of two parts: the core curriculum content standards and a school funding formula. Justice Adam B. Handler, writing for the majority, upheld the CCCS, commenting in his decision that they “are facially adequate as a reasonable legislative definition of a constitutional thorough and efficient education.” (Source: Abbott v. Burke)

It is this ruling by the State Supreme Court that codifies the CCCS as the definition of a “Thorough and Efficient” education as guaranteed by the state constitution.

Just Because It’s a “Right” Doesn’t Mean it Happens!

In essence, the CCCS codification of arts education has made arts education the constitutional right for all students for the past 16 years.

Does this ensure all of our entitled students actually are receiving arts education?

Well that’s a subject for another post!

Image courtesy Visual Arts Center of NJ

New Jersey Arts Education Partnership is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog on arts education issues.