A Retrospective on Arts Education in Denver

Just over three years ago, A+ Denver convened a group of arts experts (the 2012 Arts Task Force) to examine the state of arts education in Denver Public Schools (DPS). They initially met for two reasons: 1) arts education appeared to be on shaky footing in DPS, despite a healthy conservatory program that few DPS students were prepared for, and a dearth of other pipelines for arts study; and, 2) DPS was about to ask taxpayers to fund a second arts tax through an increased mill levy.

This Arts Task Force met over several months to discuss ways in which the rigor and quality of arts education might keep pace with the increasingly rich cultural environment in Denver. A+ published the Task Force’s findings in a report called Arts Education in Denver Schools: Envisioning Excellence. That report was released just before DPS asked Denver taxpayers for the largest new arts tax in nine years: $6 million per year. A+ and the Task Force supported the mill levy while simultaneously insisting on a high level of accountability for those dollars so that arts education would move beyond what then existed in classrooms. With that in mind, in a 2013 presentation A + stated, for example, that mill levy funds should be prioritized towards building out additional arts programs at the high school level, as well as offering level 1, or introductory, courses in each specific art discipline. This new mill levy for the arts was not the first arts tax approved by Denver citizens. In 2003, an approved mill levy increase added $6-8 million for the arts in Denver elementary schools. The purpose of the 2003 mill was to provide art and music teachers in every elementary school in DPS and it has; every district-run elementary school budgeted art teachers in 2015-16 with 211 teachers across 92 schools. Leading up to the second arts mill, both the Task Force and A+ argued taxpayers and students deserved to know the specific goals and outcomes the district was working toward.