Dallas, for instance, recently cut its public-school arts appropriations substantially. Texas, Alaska and Louisiana are among states in which arts education has been particularly hard hit because of hard times in the oil industry.
Long treated as a curricular footnote, the arts have lately been even more vulnerable than usual. With the cry of "Back to Basics," many localities have seen fit to deem the arts nonbasic.
But now there are signs of an emerging will to counter the trend. The signs include grass-roots lobbying.
In rural pockets of Massachusetts, for example, citizen "unions" are being formed to lobby for the arts at local school board sessions. The Boston- based Cultural Education Collaborative holds workshops to motivate and inform parents about arts advocacy.
John McEwan, an administrator at Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Mass., annually wages a personal crusade for private funding to keep the arts alive for his students.
Another development in the field is integration of the arts with basic subjects. Jane Remer, author of Changing Schools Through the Arts, suggests that this integration began in the 1960s with such groups as the John D. Rockefeller 3d Fund, Young Audiences, and the education programs of Lincoln Center in New York and Boston Symphony Orchestra/Tanglewood.
But today's shrinking budgets for traditional arts education partly explain why integration efforts have expanded dramatically in the past few years.
At Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Lillian Resnick gives an advanced teacher-training course that applies basic skills to art forms. She shows children the mathematics behind choreography or a haiku, for example.
At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Janet Moore offers a teacher- training course that considers music from historic, sociological, and scientific vantage points. She bases the course on her previous experience in a high school classroom, where her students investigated electronic music with electronic synthesizers and oscilloscopes.
A Rutgers theater ensemble, the Shoestring Players, performs in schools throughout the Middle Atlantic States and New England. Its repertory consists of dramatizations of international folklore and classic tales by such writers as Tolstoy and Yeats. Weeks before a performance, teachers receive instruction packets so that the stage performance can complement classroom language arts and social studies.
Public school students in Pittsburgh receive what educators there call an ''infusion" of the arts throughout their curriculum. For instance, high school students district-wide study the cultural dimensions of a historic era by studying its visual arts, drama, music and dance.
With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Harvard University and Cambridge Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass., are developing a pilot program that merges a high schoool arts curriculum with language arts and social studies, drawing on the university's extensive museum resources.
Even as it flourishes, though, integration of arts and basics is not without detractors. Critics maintain that the combination compromises the skills of arts teachers and dilutes the worth of each discipline.
In fact, this is one of several issues now dividing the arts-education community - divisions, concerned observers say, that come at a time when the field can ill afford disunity.
Another problem area has been full-time arts teachers' disagreement with parts of the so-called arts-advocacy movement. A coalition of eight national arts educators' associations in January issued a report on arts education in America, from kindergarten through high school. The report was framed largely by Sam Hope, executive director of the National Office for Arts Accreditation in Higher Education, and it challenges the arts-advocacy movement that has helped shape American arts education for two decades.
Advocacy institutions named in the report include the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, as well as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. A key role of the advocacy groups, in addition to advancing public appreciation of the arts, has been establishing artist-in-residency programs that bring gifted professionals to school systems for varying periods. Like curriculum integration of arts and the basics, they are on the increase.
The report charges that artist-in-residence programs undermine arts teachers, whose job it is to do the arts teaching themselves. "During the last decade, there has been no evidence that the corporation or foundation communities have particular interest in considering the traditional arts- education community as a full partner in the national arts enterprise."
Defenders of the advocacy organizations say the report is too rigidly pro- teacher and fails to consider how much children gain from exposure to working, successful artists.
One aim of the Columbia conference, called "Arts Curricula in Transition," was to gather national arts-education leaders under one roof to begin a unifying process.
Sam Hope, addressing the conference, acknowledged the schisms: "Those who care are fragmented in their efforts to convince those who don't care that they should care."
Charles Fowler, an arts-education writer for the publication Musical America, said at the conference: "The arts are the underdogs of American education in many ways. Unless we have unity, we can't bring ourselves up."
Another speaker was Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In May, the NEA adopted far-reaching arts-education guidelines that encourage what the chairman described as "serious and sequential arts curriculum in the schools."
Hodsoll quoted Elliot Eisner, a noted arts educator at Stanford University, who has termed the arts "the most profound forms of human achievement."
Hodsell said: "Our young people deserve to have their eyes, ears, and minds open to civilization."
Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said the arts inherently are unifying. "When a child holds up a painting or dances, everyone can understand," he said.
"The arts are not a frill, (but) a language - a most essential language" that will allow mankind "to survive with civility and joy."