PORTLAND – The news is filled these days with accounts of state and local budget woes around the country, and Maine is no different.

Not surprisingly, discussions have begun around the state about how to deal with budget deficits in the schools.

“Maine Things Considered” reported last week that the Portland Public Schools project an almost $4 million deficit, Bangor estimates nearly $2 million, and Augusta expects to be $1 million in the red. And smaller districts face large deficits as well.

As school superintendents and school board members wrestle with these numbers and search for creative solutions — and I don’t envy their task — some community members, parents and administrators will undoubtedly turn their attention to the arts.

Some prominent national politicians have recently called for the abolishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The arts have long been considered an “extra” in this country, not on the same level of importance as the “core” subjects.

This is exactly the kind of 20th-century thinking that will send our already-challenged national and state educational system into a tailspin. The question isn’t whether we can afford the arts, but whether we can afford to cut the arts at a time when we need to be deepening their presence in our schools.

For the sake of argument, allow me to briefly take off my hat as an obvious arts booster.

Forget for a minute the argument for supporting the arts that’s based on how they help teach us empathy, develop a self or build community. Forget the first song you heard that changed your life, or the line of poetry that surfaces when you need it the most, or the painting that broke your heart only to mend it again.

Let’s focus on what’s practical.

The arts help kids do better in school. Studies commissioned by places like Stanford University, the Carnegie Foundation and the University of California show that students who benefit from an arts-integrated curriculum in their schools or who regularly participate in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. They do better in math and reading and have more confidence in their schoolwork.

The arts help keep kids in school. Research from the Department of Justice confirms that at-risk youth are more likely to stay in school and do better in school if they’re involved in after-school and summer arts programs.

By arts, I don’t only mean that our students need to go to museums, hear the symphony, or watch the latest ballet — though those are important ways to experience the arts.

As the best teachers around the world know, the arts and the artistic process must be brought into our science, mathematics, history and English classrooms, and their obvious links to technology should be explored and encouraged.

The arts offer a way of engaging with the world and help make our students motivated, lifelong learners.

The arts are a proven way to teach kids how to think creatively, how to innovate and how to connect school to the working world. committing to teaching in and through the arts, we’re seeding Maine’s creative economy.

In today’s global economy, which is becoming ever more instant and more global, someone in some other part of the world will almost always be able to build a cheaper widget than we can here in Maine.

But if we can teach our kids to think and to create by using the arts — to understand the design process and the collaborative nature of creation, to consider what’s beautiful and true, and to connect photography and science, drama and history, poetry and mathematics — they will bring those creative skills into their working lives.

As authors like Daniel Pink have noted, reading, writing and arithmetic by themselves don’t cut it anymore. America’s economy is less and less based on industry and manufacturing, and today’s workers need skills like creativity, innovation, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving and visual and media literacy if they have any hope of competing in the 21st century. The arts all emphasize these skills.

Rather than thinking about how we cut our schools’ arts budgets, we should be thinking about how to better integrate the arts into everything that happens in our schools.


– Special to The Press Herald