New state law gives new life to arts in public schools

Tomeka Sinclair Features editor

RALEIGH — A new state law that makes art a must for graduating from high school is a “long time coming,” said a former Robeson County educator who has for years been advocating for the graduation requirement.

“I was so excited when I heard this,” Nila Chamberlain said. “I’m bubbling with joy.”

Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 681 into law this past week. Among other things, the law creates an Arts High School Graduation Requirement in the state of North Carolina.

State law now mandates that a student must complete one arts credit between grades six and 12 in order to graduate from high school, beginning with students entering sixth grade in 2022. Art credits include music, visual art, theater arts, and dance.

The N.C. State Board of Education will define the arts credit standards and make plans for its phased-in implementation.

The state board is to report to the N.C. General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on or before Dec. 15, 2022, about the implementation of the new graduation requirement and about the three components of Comprehensive Arts Education: education, integration and exposure.

Chamberlain said she had been waiting for this moment for decades, beginning when she first started teaching art in the Fairmont school district, before schools merged to become the Public Schools of Robeson County. She went on to serve the new school system for 17 years as its arts coordinator.

“It’s such a supporting factor for all of us,” Chamberlain said. “Art is all around us. And as a designer, I know how important a basic knowledge of art is.”

It was June 2010 when Rep. Becky Carney and Rep. Linda Johnson first offered an amendment to establish a Comprehensive Arts Education plan, and both worked as champions for arts education alongside former Arts NC Executive Director Karen Wells to make the arts high school graduation requirement a reality. There have been half a dozen bills filed to create this graduation requirement over the past decade. Most recently, HB 56 was filed in 2019 by Rep. Becky Carney and her fellow Joint Caucus on Arts and Arts Education House chair, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, who has also been a champion for arts education since his arrival at the N.C. General Assembly.

Senate chairs of the Joint Caucus on Arts and Arts Education, Sen. Deanna Ballard and Sen. Mike Woodard, also filed an identical bill, SB 238, in 2019. The Senate Bill additionally supported the requirement’s inclusion in the 2019 state budget. Although it passed both chambers of the legislature, the governor’s veto kept it from becoming law

This yearslong effort and bipartisan support, enabled the language from those bills to be added to SB 681 in committee on June 25, and be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly in the wee hours of the morning before being sent to Cooper.

Chamberlain has used the recently passed law in a letter sent Tuesday to the Robeson County Board of commissioners calling for the support of an art gallery in the county, with the goal of changing the way residents see art.

“Once it is part of the curriculum in the schools, the parent need to speak the language, too,” she said.

Being a teacher for 30 years, she had a lot of students come into her classroom who had viable artistic talent but never saw it as a career, she said.

“The parents thought that was not a viable career, and that’s not true,” Chamberlain said. “This law that was signed will do much to help parents understand ‘Yes, the children they love can do what they love.’”

Tomeka Sinclair can be reached at [email protected] or 910-416-5865.