March 5, 2021
Dr. Jack Smith and Mary Ann Mears co-chaired the Governor’s P-20 Leadership Council Task Force on Arts Education in Maryland Schools in 2013-2014, Governor Martin O’Malley’s time in office.
We commend the Maryland General Assembly for overriding the Governor’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. It is a major achievement in at long last addressing many of the inequities in our education and social policies that are raised in high relief by the current pandemic. At the same time, we caution that the legislation addresses only part of the challenges of raising our education system in Maryland to the level that it must be to fulfill the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for all of our youth.
In 2002, the Thornton Commission, predecessor to the Kirwan Commission, based its determination of adequacy and the resulting base per pupil funding formula to a considerable degree on the policy and program requirements established by state regulation in Code of Maryland Regulation (COMAR) Title 13A. Student performance by many measures was rising under Thornton. Unfortunately, as of 2009 Thornton funding ceased increasing to keep up with inflation making it difficult for increasingly underfunded schools to comply with COMAR Title 13A which defines standards and accountability for fine arts, career and technology, core subject areas, English Language Learners, early childhood education, special education and gifted and talented programming, and student services.
COMAR is the historic and ongoing foundation for equity in Maryland education and is aligned with Federal law under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which requires a well-rounded education for all students. It is essential that—in the enthusiasm for new initiatives including expanding pre-kindergarten programs, college and career readiness, special education, wraparound services for students impacted by concentrated poverty, and teacher support—the high quality standards and other facets of education encoded in COMAR are not lost.
While we are concerned about compliance with the full range of policies in COMAR, we are writing now about the implications for arts education: dance, media arts, music, theatre, and the visual arts.
In 2013-2014, we co-chaired The Governor’s Task Force on Arts Education in Maryland Schools. Leaders from the arts education field were convened and made recommendations for advancing the quality and equity of access of arts education in Maryland public schools. Chief among them was amending state regulations for arts education, COMAR (13A.04.16), which was accomplished in November 2017. The amendments were based on 10 years of research into the skills and content students should be learning in the arts in the 21st century. They encode those standards and accountability for compliance in COMAR.
In the arts as in other policy areas, the work of defining COMAR has been carried out by excellent educators from Pre-K–12 through higher education and has included extensive participation by all of our school districts. Maryland is a leader in arts education. Our fine arts standards delineated in COMAR are excellent and the requirement for equity is essential. It is on the latter point that we are most focused.
The arts are an area in which there is great variability among school programs; the breadth and depth of arts programs vary greatly across Maryland. It is axiomatic that arts programs are the first to be eliminated in the face of inadequate funding in schools. Lack of access to arts programs tracks with poverty and is associated with schools with a majority of children of color and is one of the most invidious manifestations of structural racism.
Abundant studies demonstrate that children who participate in strong arts programs achieve at higher levels academically and are more likely to go to college. And, significant to this time of crisis, the arts are associated with mental and behavioral health and a sense of well-being for children and adults alike. Most crucially, denial of arts programs diminishes capacities for creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, which are all highly valued by employers and enhance personal growth. Finally, the arts afford cultural literacy: the opportunity to deeply understand oneself and others. This is more essential now than at any other time in our history.
It is important to reaffirm the policy commitments made by the education field over decades of research and analysis of what our students need to thrive; research that also reveals students and parents know the arts are vital to their engagement and success in education and in life.
We urge the General Assembly to correct the omission of COMAR Title 13A in the Blueprint Bill reference to policy pertinent to per pupil funding by supporting SB0915 introduced by Senator Cory McCray. We are not alone in recommending this change. It is one of the six top priorities of the Maryland Education Coalition (MEC). MEC comprises 20 of Maryland’s leading education advocacy organizations who all recognize the quality and importance of COMAR Title 13A for our students whether in the arts or other domains.