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Arts Educators Get Mileage Out of 'Mr. Holland's Opus'

Movies often generate conversation. But rarely is the dialogue as organized and sustained as the one that arts-education advocates hope to get out of "Mr. Holland's Opus."

The film, starring Richard Dreyfuss, celebrates the value of teaching young people to love and to create music. It also asks us to envision what society will be like if school districts continue to drop music programs in the name of reading, writing, and tight-budget arithmetic.

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The National Coalition for Music Education, which in 1990 started a decade-long push for a commitment to arts in America's schools, isn't just riding on the film's coattails. It's actually doing a good deal of the driving. The coalition helped sponsor 51 premieres of the film on Jan. 9. Decisionmakers of all stripes - school board members, politicians, parents - were invited to view the film and its trailer message from Mr. Dreyfuss, who is on the coalition's advisory council. Local advocates also talked with guests about the state of the arts in their communities.

Robert Morrison is executive director of the American Music Conference, one of the coalition's many supporting organizations. He says attendance at the premieres somewhat surpassed the goal of 25,000 nationwide. Eleven cities even established Jan. 9 as "Mr. Holland's Opus" Day. Govs. Fife Symington (R) of Arizona and Bob Miller (D) of Nevada are among those lending support to this campaign on behalf of arts education in public schools.

Heartfelt speeches won't be enough to solve problems like Boston's, where only two public high school music programs remain. But "just getting it discussed" is an achievement, Mr. Morrison says.

He emphasizes that there is substantial public support for music and art education. A 1994 Gallup survey found that 85 percent of respondents believed communities should provide financial resources to arts programs; 71 percent thought music education should be mandated by the states. With so much "support," why are the arts vanishing from schools?

Part of Morrison's explanation is that "some school board members are purely uninformed about the role music programs play" in developing skills like teamwork and spatial and abstract reasoning.

"Ten or 15 years ago we didn't have the scientific evidence," he says. But anyone who attended a premiere walked away with a persuasive fact sheet: A correlation between arts courses and higher SAT scores is just one example.

Because the benefits go beyond nurturing future music stars, the coalition's goal is that every child (rather than just those whose families can afford it privately) be given quality arts education.

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The challenge is to equip people in the community with tools for "effective caring," as Morrison puts it. To do that, the coalition offers information and action kits to help people monitor the school-budget process. "It shouldn't be a competition among disciplines," Morrison stresses. "If you have to cut 10 percent ... you should spread the burden across the whole curriculum."

*National Coalition for Music Education: 800-336-3768, or on the Web:

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