The Current State of Arts Education in California

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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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2 Responses to “The Current State of Arts Education in California”

  1. Linda Garbarino Says:

    I am a parent at a elementary school in San Jose with a very strong school community. We have very diverse school with the desire to enhance and add more Music into our school community. Through a hard working Task Force that was established last year, the parents and staff rallied to enhance a young music program including more music appreciation and a music cirriculum. As a result we are in the process of doing just that through parent funding. This enhanced music program is attempting to bring music standards back into our school. Furthermore, it was only in May that we realized that we had the opportunity to add a before class band program for our 3rd through 5th graders! Our Band program started this week with around 80 interested students bringing their instruments to their band class at 7:30 am this week. I as a parent was so thrilled to have my son express his desire to learn an instrument- an opportunity I had when I was in elementary school. We have a very unique school where we have a large percentage of students who receive free or reduced priced lunches. Sadly, we do not have enough instruments nor funding to support those who do not have the means to rent or buy an instrument. Some of the donations of instruments that we did receive need substantial repair work to make them usable. Music Stands are needed for our Band Participants. Furthermore, our school is marching in the Annual Founder’s Day Parade in San Jose’s Willow Glen seeking help for our new Band Program. Our theme is the “Band Aid.” We look forward to any feedback/assistance regarding our funding issues.

  2. Connor Snyder Says:

    Although I received a four year college education at UC Berkeley and UCLA, I am not a credentialed theatre arts teacher. Yet I have managed to run a children’s theatre organization, Kids 4 Broadway, here in Lake County, CA for the past 19 years. For four of those years, K4B has been under contract with the US Air Force and Army Boys and Girls Clubs and 21st Century Community Learning Centers in conducting both theatre camps for students ages 6-14 and day long seminar trainings for School Age Care Staff who wish to learn how to run their own children’s theatre program.

    The National Military Families Association heard about Kids 4 Broadway’s outstanding reputation for quality programming and sent me to Naples, Italy and Rota, Spain last year to conduct theatre camps for kids on Navy Bases over there. This “Operation Purple” program was very enthusiastically received.

    All these kudos from out of state and out of the country – and yet California educators have shunned this program because of the lack of a credential. Makes no sense to me.

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