Archive for September, 2009

The Current State of Arts Education in California

September 22, 2009

By Laurie T. Schell, Executive Director

Welcome to our new blog!  In the coming months, we look forward to bringing you posts from a wide variety of thinkers engaged with the future of arts education in California.

Recently, the Alliance undertook an informal survey of the 30 largest school districts in California to get a temperature read on how things are going. Here are two observations that stand out in reviewing the research:

If you don’t use it, you lose it. The most common story we heard from across California has to do with the demise of the unused one-time and ongoing Arts and Music Block Grant funds (resulting from the historic grant made in 2006). The irony is that many districts were trying to do the right thing— holding the money in order to think and plan strategically for greater impact over several years. And guess what? The unspent funds are largely gone now – swept into the general fund as soon as a change in state policy allowed.

We heard harrowing stories of districts making painful decisions about how to rob Peter to pay Paul, and we understand the desperate straits that many districts find themselves in. But what can we learn from the fate of that historic grant?

It’s a commonplace of budgeting that if you don’t use designated funds, you’re likely to lose them. That means having a strategic plan in place before the money arrives and strong momentum in the delivery of quality arts instruction already underway.  Having a plan is not a panacea, but it has proven a successful tactic for districts who make a commitment both to the plan and its implementation. Some day we’ll emerge from these dark days of the economic crisis. And when we do, districts that have done their planning work ahead of the curve will stand to benefit the most. So whether we’re talking about future federal funding, or just the return of better days and the rise in tide that lifts all boats, it’s important to continue planning for improved capacity in arts education.

Our message has made a difference. The second finding from the survey reveals a silver lining. In many cases, several of the districts we spoke with reported their administrators and school board officials valued the arts and took positions to protect arts programs. They also reported arts education advocates from the community were present and vocal at school board meetings. This hasn’t always been the case. These anecdotes suggest that advocates have been very effective in raising the level of awareness about the value of arts education for every child.

There is no doubt that we’ve made progress—historic funding in 2006, pockets of community activists making the case, better understanding of what quality arts programs look like, and greater awareness among school board and administrators. The problem, however, is that the restoration of the arts in each of the 1,000 California districts is tenuous and can only be sustained if each of us takes responsibility to act.  Without letting up on the message about why the arts matter (the emotional message), we must also hammer away at the need to fund and prioritize the arts in the same way as other core subject areas (the political message), and position the arts as an essential component of a complete education for every child (the BIG message).

We need to get busy as advocates, making sure that our state and local policymakers and education decisionmakers do three things, with regard to the visual and performing arts.

Prioritize the arts – dance, music, theatre, visual arts – as a core subject area.

Fund arts education – teachers, curriculum, instructional materials, professional development – in an ongoing, sustainable way.

Position the arts as essential to a complete education, thereby protecting them from funding raids in lean years.

Those three principles should guide every action we take as advocates.

And that leads me back to this blog. In the coming months, we’ll investigate many different points of view related to the political work ahead of us. We’ll ask knowledgeable experts to write about ways that we can prioritize, fund and position the arts in California schools. I hope you’ll be part of that conversation. It promises to be dynamic, diverse and pertinent.

If you don’t already, please subscribe to our twice-monthly newsletter, ArtsEdMail. Each issue will pose a question, and link to this blog, where we hope to engender and open conversation in response.

I look forward to hearing from you!

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