The Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation States its Case: Art Saves Lives

Loyal IP readers know that we've been closely following our society's collective obsession with standardized testing for a while now. And like most obsessions, the proliferation of standardized testing has reached an inflection point.

According to a Council of the Great City Schools' comprehensive study of 66 of the nation's big-city school districts, testing amounts to about 2.3 percent of classroom time for the typical public school eighth grader. It may not sound like much, but consider that between pre-K and 12th grade, students take approximately 112 mandatory standardized exams.

We think that's a bit much, and so does someone whose opinion carries a bit more weight. President Obama recently called for limiting standardized testing to 2 percent of classroom time.

Don't get us wrong. Standardized testing certainly eats up too much time. But this clinical analysis indirectly underscores more adverse and unintended consequences. After all, no piece of public policy exists in a vacuum. When No Child Left Behind demanded a greater focus on standardized testing, arts education took a hit. And therein lies the irony. Standardized testing was supposed to help all kids, but especially those in impoverished districts. But that assistance came at a cost. Throw in the Great Recession and things look especially grim for arts education. (The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, saw its arts funding cut from $48 million to $18 million in 2008.) 

Fortunately, many grant makers have attempted to fill the art education funding gaps. One funder that has stepped up to the plate for the past 20 years is the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation (RPAF), whose goal is to provide inner city youth across New York City with significant exposure to the arts, as well as support for emerging artists with exhibition opportunities. Rush was founded in 1995 by brothers Danny Simmons, Russell Simmons, and Joseph "Rev. Run" Simmons of Run-DMC. (Click here for a more thorough look at Russell Simmons' philanthropic priorities and grantmaking history.)

The foundation oversees two main program areas: Rush Education arts programs for youth and Rush Arts Galleries. Under the Rush Education umbrella, you'll find a litany of education programs geared toward kids spanning various age groups. Programs include Rush Gallery in School; Rush Little Kids, Kids, and Teens; and Rush Portfolio, which helps art students fine-tune their art portfolios before applying to specialty middle and high schools and colleges. The foundation directly serves over 3,000 students annually.

This support is critical because research suggests that the state of public school arts education in New York is in bad shape. According to a 2014 report by the New York City comptroller, many public schools in the city do not offer any kind of arts education, and that the lack of arts instruction disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods. For instance, more than 42% of the schools that do not have state-certified arts teachers are clustered in the city's poorest areas, namely the South Bronx and central Brooklyn. Or how about this doozy: Between 2006 and 2013, spending on arts supplies and equipment dropped by 84%.

And what's to blame for these stark figures? You get three guesses—but you'll probably need only one.

The "bleed-the-arts-dry" trend accelerated as "schools focused more on meeting accountability standards, shifting their resources from subjects seen as nonessential, like arts," notes the Times. This conclusion is "likely to add fuel to the backlash against accountability testing." The report's author, comptroller Scott Stringer, said it best. "We’ve spent so much time over the last 10 years teaching to the test, and lost in the shuffle was arts teachers, arts curriculum and arts space."

And so arts education continues to get squeezed by two powerful forces. The first is the standardized testing delirium, which is potentially ebbing, but is nonetheless formidable. The second is the lingering financial effects of the Great Recession. For some school districts, arts funding never returned to pre-recession levels. Then there's a third threat—the emerging specter of "effective altruism." It's an idea espoused by people like Bill Gates that equates donating to a museum with blinding people. Why would anyone donate money to build a new museum wing, he argues, rather than to prevent illnesses that can lead to blindness?

It's a highly charged topic that could sap funds from the already strained arts education landscape. Needless to say, the implications are vast, so we'll table it for another time. Until then, two things are certain. First, organizations like Simmons' Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation will continue to provide a needed arts education lifeline to inner city kids. And second, as his 20 years of support suggests, Russell Simmons probably disagrees with Bill Gates.

So we'll let Russell have the last word: "Art saves lives, it's that simple."