For decades, arts and music education in California has been dying a slow death in many schools, strangled by budget cuts amid an ongoing emphasis on core subjects like reading and math and test scores as the measure of student success.
But now, as educators search for new strategies to excite students about learning, especially during this grim pandemic, there is hope for their revival.
In contrast to several proposed ballot measures that would weaken public schools, former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner is leading an effort to restore arts and music education to a more prominent place in the school curriculum.
With the backing of a growing number of artists and educators, Beutner wants to put an initiative on next November’s ballot that would require the state to spend between $800 million and $1 billion extra each year out of its general fund for arts and music education in the state.
That’s four times more than the total budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.
A huge windfall for the schools?
Hardly. It’s only the equivalent of about 1% of what the state currently on its schools required by Proposition 98, the initiative that dictates how much the state must spend on schools.
This week, the cause of arts and music education got a boost when Gov. Gavin Newsom included $1 billion for that purpose in his Expanded Learning Opportunities Program for the coming school year.
As welcome as that funding would be, it is one-time funding, so there is no assurance the programs would continue. Nor would they be integrated into the curriculum, but rather would be part of after-school or summer programs for K-6 students, and not accessible to all children.
That’s why the initiative Beutner is promoting will still be needed. In fact, it would simply help schools follow the spirit, if not the letter, of what they are already required to do by law.
It will come as a surprise to many Californians — as it did to me — that state law actually requires schools to provide, from first through sixth grade, “instruction in the subjects of dance, music, theater, and visual arts, aimed at the development of aesthetic appreciation and the skills of creative expression.”
As for middle and high schools, the law is even more prescriptive, saying schools “shall offer courses” in those subjects.
But these laws are weak in the extreme: They don’t specify how much instruction or how many courses should be offered, or by whom.
“It mandates it, but there are no teeth to it,” said Li Ezzell, an elementary school art teacher in the San Juan Unified School District near Sacramento who just stepped down as president of the California Art Education Association.
The saving grace is that the University of California and the California State University both require that students take the equivalent of a yearlong course in the visual and performing arts for admission.
That’s better than nothing, but it’s totally inadequate, says Ezzell. “How can you possibly say students have achieved some level of competency (in the arts) when they should have had 12 or 13 years in it, as they do in language arts, mathematics and to some degree in science and social studies?”
So what we have now in California is tremendous variation in how much arts and music instruction is offered, as this map of arts programs in California powerfully demonstrates.
Berkeley Unified, where my children went to school, has a vibrant music program offered to thousands of its students beginning in the third grade. It’s only possible because of a parcel tax on real estate approved by the required two-thirds vote of Berkeley voters.
Only a fraction of districts are able to raise that kind of money, and very few in poorer communities. As a result, schools serving low-income students, especially students of color, are less likely to have robust arts programs, notes Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
Beutner’s initiative, he said, would represent “an important step in addressing the issue.”
The disparities are far too large. National data from a decade ago showed that white students were twice as likely as Black and Latino students to have received an arts education.
The situation is worse now because many budget cuts made during the Great Recession have not been restored fully, if at all, further eviscerating many programs.
Listen to the travails of Eloy Adame, a trumpeter, arranger and longtime music teacher who is starting an instrumental music program from scratch at the Elizabeth Learning Center, a Los Angeles Unified school with 1,500 almost entirely low-income Latino students. Nearly all the students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. A big challenge is that the school only has 45 instruments for the 200 students in the program. Some instruments are in need of repair.
Before the pandemic, students would get their own mouthpieces and then share trumpets, for example, or get their own reeds and share clarinets. The pandemic has ended that practice. Adame says he needs as much as $90,000 just for instruments — and getting that kind of money out of school administrators is “inconceivable.”
“They’re more likely to say, ‘Can you make it with work with 10% of that?’”
This is not only a California problem but also a national one. This fall, a commission appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a “call to action” in its report titled “Art’s for Life’s Sake: The Case for Arts Education.”
“Arts education was already in a state of crisis and dire need before the fraught year of 2020, and the pandemic has intensified that crisis exponentially,” the report asserted.
John Lithgow, a multiple award-winning actor who lives in Los Angeles, is a co-chair of the commission and is backing the California initiative.
“I can only talk from my own personal experience, but I’m sure it’s true. It just enlivens the entire experience of education,” Lithgow said, referring to the arts classes he took as a student. “It made me want to go to school, and it helped me figure out who I was.”
That echoes why rap artist and producer Dr. Dre is also on board.
“I’m all in on giving kids more access to music and arts education because creativity saved my life,” he said. “I want to do that for every kid in California.”
Louis Freedberg is a past executive director of EdSource and a veteran education journalist.
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