"I still have a hard time believing what's happened to us." Jim Nulty, the President of VSA arts of Indiana, an organization dedicated to facilitating arts experiences for people, especially children, with disabilities speaks quietly, but with force. His organization's 30 years of serving disabled kids in Indiana's public schools has been brought to an abrupt end by State Superintendent of Schools Tony Bennett's new regime.
The organization, formerly known as Very Special arts of Indiana, is the Indiana affiliate of VSA arts, an educational program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Created by President Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith in the 1970s, VSA arts of Indiana has been honored with a Governor's Arts Award in 2001 and Nulty was presented with the Pauley Award for Lifetime Achievement in Advocacy for Disability Issues. It has received grants for special projects from the National Endowment For the Arts, the Indiana Arts Commission and the Arts Council of Indianapolis.
But the vast majority of VSA arts' budget has traditionally passed from the federal government through the Indiana Department of Education's (IDE) Division of Exceptional Learners (DEL).
Here is how things work: Every year the federal government sends a sum of money to the IDE that is earmarked for children who qualify for Special Education services. Until last June, distributing those Special Education Dollars was the responsibility of the state's then-director of Special Education, a man named Dr. Robert Marra. Marra recognized VSA arts as one of 20 programs in the state for disabled people that he channeled money to.
Each year, VSA arts would submit a grant to Marra's office specifying how it would use those dollars to help children with special needs in school settings. Over the years, Nulty says, the amount of that grant grew to be just shy of $900,000. "Because of the quality of the work and the response that could be seen by educators, by parents in their children performing, being involved in an art exhibit or dancing from a wheelchair. It's a very powerful thing."
That $900,000 was what Nulty calls VSA arts' "foundation." It paid administrative salaries, as well as compensation for the approximately 150 teaching artists across the state that VSA arts trained to work in classrooms and schools.
It also paid the rent at VSA arts' Harrison Arts Center headquarters at 1505 N. Delaware St., including office space, the enROUTE Gallery and a studio for music, theater and dance. "It has held us together and allowed us to grow," says Nulty. The total VSA arts budget last year was $1.2 million.
But the money the IDE sent to Robert Marra's office and that Marra distributed to VSA arts and 19 other programs is defined as "discretionary." The IDE is not obligated to support these programs.
And, according to Nulty, last June it became clear things were going to change.
First came an email that announced Robert Marra was resigning. "Dr. Marra resigned," says Nulty, "because, as I was told, he was asked by the new superintendent of education to disassemble the projects and re-examine these dollars and send them in different directions."
The number of projects the IDE wanted to support was cut from 20 to six and none of the projects the IDE called for indicated or expressed an interest in the arts.
"Bob Marra knows our value," says Nulty. "He's attended our events. He's listened to teachers who reinforce the work that we do, the impact on kids. So Bob went down, his assistant went down, the man that wrote the original grant and awarded the grant through the division took early retirement. A lot of heads have moved at the Department of Education."
Subhead: New priorities at IDE
On July 1, the beginning of their fiscal year, the 20 existing projects, including VSA arts, were informed by the IDE that their budgets would be cut in half. "Our $900,000 every line item we submitted - for supplies, for staff, for rent, for our teaching artists, was cut by 50 percent," recounts Nulty. "I thought, 'Oh, they're sending it in two packets' because the email was curt, there was no explanation and it came from people whose names I didn't know. They were employees of the Department of Education who had been shifted from other areas to fill spots that were vacated rapidly."
This was a prelude to the discovery that the IDE was cutting projects and redefining its priorities for disabled populations; calling for proposals from both nonprofit and for-profit entities both in- and out-of-state. When, about this time, Nulty spoke to a representative from the U.S. Dept. of Education at a conference in Washington, D.C. he was told that what Indiana was doing was not based on a federal directive. "He said that's something that's happening within your state and you need to look at who's in power and what they're trying to do."
It didn't take Nulty long to realize that, as far as the state's Department of Education was concerned, VSA arts was being erased. He concluded that, under the new guidelines, his organization would have to completely redefine what it does in order to qualify for funding.
"Our programs have gone down," Nulty says of the aftermath. "We can't afford to pay teaching artists. We are negotiating with the Harrison Center, trying to figure out if we can pay the rent. We're reducing the space that we have, giving up, most likely, our gallery, our studio and some other space that we have there."
At this point, VSA arts is hoping that, through temporarily reducing its services, it can borrow enough time to find new dollars. An anonymous donor has already come through with a gift that Nulty says should allow them to operate until June. Meanwhile, the task for Nulty and his board will be to envision a new organization: "Much smaller, more limited, and that might not serve children because IDE is gone. They've pulled out."
Nulty believes that VSA arts has lost out to the IDE's intense focus on quantitative achievement and its emphasis on math and science scores. "This trend toward science and math and raising those achievement scores is going to be to the detriment of all of our kids, I think, because we are leaving out that important part of who we are as human beings... Teenage suicide rates are going up across the country because these kids cannot make the grades that they're supposed to make because they don't learn in the way they're being taught.
"Differentiated education means that if you have different kinds of people in the room, each is going to learn differently. One might learn kinetically, by moving their body. Another might learn through music. The arts are an avenue to differentiated education, and that's what's being cut out."
Nulty doesn't hide his anger. "What frustrates me is knowing the value of what we do and the lives we've changed through involving kids - the most needy kids, the most vulnerable families in he state of Indiana - in the arts. I've seen the powerful difference it can make on their ego, their personality, their general health. That's what's been taken away from them, and it really pisses me off."
Nulty says VSA arts is looking for alternative funding sources, "bits and pieces" that the organization can cobble together in order to continue providing services that, he notes, are more needed than ever.
"If I hadn't seen it and lived it for the past 35 years, I wouldn't feel I knew what I was talking about," says Nulty, who began his career as a visual artist, working in children's hospitals with multiply handicapped kids. But today I do know what I'm talking about. I'll be 65 in a couple of months and it's taken me this long to know that my life, this work with this organization, changing the lives of all these kids, has made a difference. And when I see a political force coming up and challenging it because the trend of the day is to advance math and science scores - see, I don't think that's going to create a better world to live in."