Sen. Mike Merrifield, in his last session before retiring from the legislature, is more hopeful than ever about securing an optional accreditation point for Colorado schools that offer arts programs.
He tried and failed last year, but this session Senate Bill 8 has an influential co-sponsor among Republicans, Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker.
Merrifield, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, said no school would be punished if it didn’t offer theater, band, visual arts or some other sanctioned creative outlet their students, but those that do would recognized and rewarded at the state level.
Accreditation is the yardstick the state Department of Education uses to grade schools, from the accredited with a turnaround plan to accredited with distinction.
“This is my attempt to maintain what every scientific study has shown gives children an opportunity to have greater success in school and later in life,” Merrifield said.
On the Senate floor, assuming, Merrifield can deliver all the Democratic votes and independent Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge, Holbert could provide the swing vote to bounce the bill to the Democratic-led House. His influence would likely attract more support than that, however.
“As a person who struggles with dyslexia, I know how empowering it can be for students to have opportunities to learn by seeing, doing and hearing,” Holbert said. “I’m proud to work with Sen. Merrifield to encourage such opportunities for students throughout Colorado.”
But the legislation first will have to clear the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, next Thursday afternoon. Hill opposed the bill last year.
Merrifield said some critics in both parties might have motives they don’t like to specify, namely that testing in public schools discourages attention to the arts. He opposed Senate Bill 191 in 2010, which called for newer testing standards by 2013.
“For those opposed, I think they’re basically saying, ‘We don’t want to distract concentration from the subject areas that are tested by having any opportunity for schools and students to emphasize or be evaluated in the arts,'” Merrifield said. “It’s a frill, when what’s important to them is what gets tested.
“They won’t say it that way, but that’s what it’s about.”
Merrifield said he understands that poor districts have “only a very limited pot of money” and across the state lots of schools have had to cut back funding. He wants to provide some incentive to bring them back.
But many rural schools and charter schools simply can’t keep up, said Luke Ragland, the president of the conservative school-choice advocacy group ReadyCO. He said he loves the promise of more arts education in all schools, and he sees the benefits an arts curriculum provides students.
Ragland is concerned that it’s an unrealistic measurement for some schools that will naturally favor large, wealthy schools. Rural and small charter schools have a hard enough time attracting and retaining students.
Setting a state standard for what art courses should look like is rife with unintended consequences, he said.
Those charter and rural schools offering some arts courses now might be less likely to offer them, if the state standard suggests they need to hire a drama teacher or buy band instruments they can’t afford to qualify for a credit that’s easily in reach of larger schools.
“It would potentially lead to a narrowing of the arts curriculum in smaller schools, not expand it,” Ragland said. “It’s a tricky issue.”