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Friday, March 12, 2010

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Legislative Update

Congress Begins Budget Season, NEA Proposes "Our Town" Initiative

NASAA Legislative Counsel Thomas L. Birch

With the release in February of the Obama administration's fiscal year 2011 budget plan, Congress officially enters into the appropriations season with a heavy schedule of hearings over the next two months, with agency heads sent to Capitol Hill to defend the president's funding proposals. When the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chair Rocco Landesman appears before the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in the House of Representatives sometime this spring, he will present a budget with a cut in funding for the arts $6 million below the current appropriation of $167.5 million.

The president's request of $161.3 million for 2011 is the same level proposed by the administration a year ago, which Congress rejected and instead voted to increase. Indeed, the NEA's funding has grown in recent years by more than 35%--from $124.4 million in 2007 to $167.5 million in the current year. NASAA and our advocacy colleagues are hopeful that Congress will again vote to retain NEA funds cut by the president's proposal, with the possibility of an increase over the 2010 spending to $180 million--allowing for restoration of funds lost more than a decade ago and for growth to allow for new program initiatives.

"Our Town"

In the administration's budget plan, the arts endowment has proposed a new initiative, "Our Town," funded at $5 million and paid for by discontinuing the American Masterpieces program created by the previous administration. The remaining $5 million currently allocated to American Masterpieces would be distributed through the endowment's direct grants to organizations. The FY2011 budget also would allocate $1.5 million from program grant funds for continued support for The Big Read.

The endowment's "Our Town" "signature program . . . reflects the values and aspirations of the new administration," according to the NEA's budget descriptions, aimed at "helping to revitalize and improve the livability of communities, provide joy and inspiration, and restore a sense of pride and community spirit."

Funding from Our Town would include support for:

Grants would go to projects in approximately 35 communities, "especially those that are facing economic challenges but are interested in the arts."

Citing examples of places where the engagement of the arts has been transformational to the vitality of a community, the NEA's budget names such diverse towns and cities as New York Mills, Minnesota; Paducah, Kentucky; Bangor, Maine; Colquitt, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; North Adams, Massachusetts; Houston, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Bellingham, Washington. The budget narrative also refers to the work of many states that have designated communities as arts districts or creative communities, which "concentrates State resources in areas where local communities are prepared to undertake significant cultural development work to achieve positive economic outcomes."

SAA Funding

Partnership grants to state arts agencies (SAAs), still representing 40% of all grant dollars, would perforce drop with the president's proposed funding cut from $55.49 million in 2010 to $52.632 million in 2011. The NEA's budget document credits the partnership with the states: "SAAs greatly extend the Arts Endowment's reach and impact, translating national leadership into local benefit. By statute, the 50 State and six special jurisdiction SAAs--together with their six Regional Arts Organizations--receive 40% of the Arts Endowment's grantmaking funds. . . . The support provided by the Arts Endowment is vital to the SAAs and their RAOs, serving as a source of leadership and stability--especially important in difficult economic times. One cannot overestimate the stabilizing role played by Arts Endowment funds, the most predictable funding source available to most State arts agencies over time."

Education funding to SAAs through the Partnership for the Arts grants would be level funded at $1.7 million. NEA's support would also continue for the Arts Education Partnership, which NASAA cochairs with the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Challenge America

Despite the requested $6 million cut in NEA funds, the administration is proposing to hold funding for Challenge America at the current level of $10 million, anticipating that the money will go to "maintain our commitment to award at least one direct grant in each Congressional district every year, a goal the Agency has achieved each year since FY2005."

Support for the NEA's administrative expenses would go up in the president's proposal from $26.952 million to $27.855 million in the coming fiscal year.

Department of Education Arts Education

In the budget proposed for the U.S. Department of Education, the Obama administration would fold $40 million currently allocated for arts in education grants into a new pool combined with six other non-arts grants programs in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. The pool, at $6.33 billion for grants to support "Innovation and Instructional Teams," includes support to local education agencies or to nonprofit organizations in consortium with schools to "develop and expand innovative strategies and practices that have been shown to be effective in improving educational outcomes for students."

While the new funding bloc would receive an increase of 17% over current spending for the combined programs identified, there is no indication of what level of support would go for arts education. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, testifying before the House Budget Committee, said that he had heard concerns expressed about the administration's proposed consolidation of programs, but that the budget requested an extra $100 million in total funding for the new initiative and that this funding in part was intended to provide incentives to spur efforts to address the reductions in arts education spending around the country.

In his statement to the Budget Committee, Duncan said: "We also are asking for $1 billion for an Effective Teaching and Learning for a Complete Education authority that would make competitive awards focused on high-need districts to improve instruction in the areas of literacy, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, the arts, foreign languages, civics and government, history, geography, economics and financial literacy, and other subjects. We propose these programs in addition to a $2.5 billion Effective Teachers and Leaders formula grant program to States and LEAs, to promote and enhance the teaching profession."

NASAA and other arts education advocates are urging Congress to maintain the distinct funding for the Education Department's arts education grants in FY2011 with an increase from the current level of $40 million to $53 million, and to consider any changes in program configuration in the context of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year or next.

Keep abreast of current congressional news and federal legislative updates, and be sure to take advantage of NASAA's arts advocacy tools and services.