Are School Drama Programs at Risk? Education Experts Weigh In

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Photo Source: The Waterwell Drama Program at PPAS’s New Works Lab production of “Kill the Messenger” Credit: Ryan Jensen

Schools cutting funding for the arts isn’t a new phenomenon; but lately, the problem has been getting worse. According to a recent report from Gitnux, only 3.2% of the United States education budget is dedicated to the arts. To make matters worse, every 10 years, 20% of schools reduce their offerings in the field.

According to an article in Harvard Ed., arts education tends to get deprioritized during times of financial anxiety and major political shifts—which certainly describes our current era.

These changes are leading some students to fight back. When Manhattan’s Professional Performing Arts School announced plans to shutter its drama department—which counts Jeremy Allen White, Claire Danes, and Jesse Eisenberg among its alums—a seventh grader organized a gutsy online fundraiser to save the program.

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At the time of publication, the student’s GoFundMe campaign is more than halfway to reaching its $102,000 goal. Prominent PPAS alum Alicia Keys, alongside her management firm, Roc Nation, contributed $60,000. The cause has even attracted the attention of famed civil rights lawyer Ben Crump. 

For some, the fundraiser is a feel-good story about students banding together to save their beloved theater program—a tale that is itself worthy of the stage. However, the circumstances are far from clear-cut. In fact, it’s an open question whether the funds raised can actually be used, since PPAS occupies a unique position in the city’s school system. 

Though it’s operated by the NYC Department of Education, the performing arts program contracts out to third-party organizations like the Ailey School and Rosie O’Donnell’s Rosie’s Theater Kids. The Waterwell theater company, which partners with the drama department, says that it can’t accept any donations raised by the GoFundMe, as the money is earmarked for the school’s PTA. 

“Arts programs continue to be the first consideration in school budget cuts because, historically, the arts are seen as ‘special,’ ‘a treat’ … They will herald the need for students to connect on a personal level and get off their screens—yet they just eliminated the solution. ”
Dr. Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA)

“The model at PPAS, which outsources much of the drama teaching to a subsidiary rather than hiring New York State–certified drama educators, is an unusual arrangement that is not seen at any of [PPAS’s] peer performing arts schools in New York City. That made their drama program vulnerable,” explains New York University doctoral coordinator Dr. Jonathan P. Jones, who also advises theater education students.

The NYC DOE says that Waterwell’s dismissal wasn’t related to budget cuts, but rather a decision to find a new administrator for PPAS’ drama program. 

Waterwell refuted the DOE’s claim in a punchy statement, explaining that, in late February, they were notified that “we would not be receiving the remaining 20% ($102,243) of our originally agreed-upon work order, ending our program several weeks early and depriving the students of the finale to their school year.” (Waterwell’s most recently available tax documents indicate that its partnership with the school generated more than a quarter of its annual revenue.)  

Empty stage


PPAS is far from the only American arts school feeling the effects of budget constraints. In January, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—the first combination museum–arts school in the U.S.—announced the impending closure of its BFA and MFA programs. The following month, students at the Denver School of the Arts staged a walkout in protest of proposed faculty layoffs. 

“Arts programs continue to be the first consideration in school budget cuts because, historically, the arts are seen as ‘special,’ ‘a treat,’ or ‘an enrichment elective,’ ” says Dr. Jennifer Katona, the executive director of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA). 

“What often happens is a school cuts a theater program, then, the following week, speaks to the community and district administrators about the need for creative problem-solving and socio-emotional, project-based, and inquiry-based learning,” she continues. “They will herald the need for students to connect on a personal level and get off their screens—yet they just eliminated the solution.”

Theater professor Dr. Toby Emert, the co-chair of the department of creative arts at Georgia’s Agnes Scott College, agrees. “Administrators, decisionmakers, and politicians—both local and national—often don’t understand the collaborative nature of the arts and the costs associated with developing and nurturing creative teams to produce projects,” he says. 

After conducting a study on the return on investment of different majors, ASC announced plans to merge its art history, dance, music, studio art, and theater majors into a single Creative Arts program. 

“We are a small liberal arts college that, at some level, values the arts and considers creative expression central to the enterprise of education,” says Emert. “But the downsizing was related to an ethos of efficiency and what has been called an effort to ‘right-size’ departments. The right size is, perhaps predictably, always smaller.”

“If you are a program relying solely on the school district to support the school, that is a dangerous risk,” says Alexis Truitt, the executive director of the American Alliance for Theatre & Education. “Arts are never at the top of the list when budgets are created.”

In order to withstand the threat of cutbacks, some arts schools are advocating for themselves and searching for alternate sources of revenue. Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, for example, is bolstered by its active, organized PTSA. The New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a well-established middle and high school that relies heavily on state funding, has created a nonprofit arm to generate additional revenue. 

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Credit: Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock

Then there’s the Alabama School of Fine Arts, which focuses on math and science in addition to the arts. This unique combination of disciplines makes it more difficult for legislators to consider cutting funding if and when the state education budget ends up on the chopping block.

Joe Salvatore, a clinical professor of educational theater at NYU, believes that the recent rise in censorship presents an even more dangerous threat to performing arts programs than funding cuts. “The current political climate and legislation being considered in states across the country raises the stakes each time a school’s production choice gets called into question,” he warns. 

The data backs up Salvatore’s claims. According to a recent EdTA survey, 85% of drama educators have cited concerns about censorship. Productions of works that focus on LGBTQ+ topics have faced severe challenges at schools across the country, such as a stagings of “The Prom” at Illinois’ Hampshire High and “The Laramie Project” at Keller High in Texas.

Between budget cuts and censorship, educators are setting out to find allies. Galvanized by the news at PPAS, advocates are gearing up to lobby for arts education in NYC schools. 

“Arts are not optional—they are core to a well-rounded education and integral to our city’s approach to an improved future for all,” says Kimberly Olsen, the executive director of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable. She adds that her organization is “fighting hard against any proposed cuts in this year’s budget and will continue to advocate so that no child goes without a life-saving arts education.” 

Katona agrees that these programs are vital. “While theater is special, it is not to be relegated to [the position of] a special treat,” she says. “The skills learned in theater are at the core of our humanity—and to me, that seems just as valuable as math and reading.”

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 11 issue of Backstage Magazine.