Arts education works. Now, California voters need to pay for it

Primbondh/ December 4, 2022/ arts to education

One perk my son had as a student in the Berkeley public schools was the vibrant music program available to every student beginning in the elementary grades. It’s a program largely funded by a parcel tax on real estate that has long received voter support.

It was through this program that my son was introduced to the trumpet. He excelled at it, ending up as first trumpet in the renowned jazz ensemble at Berkeley High. Ultimately though, he decided not to make music his career. Instead, he studied data science and statistics in college. Recently, he landed a job at a leading tech firm.

My son didn’t end up a musician by profession, but I am certain music education was a key to his success. Unfortunately, his experience is not typical of most students in California public schools. 

Most students in the state are not receiving the level of music and arts education that is required by law, if they receive any at all. According to a recent report from the research institute SRI International, just 11% of schools are meeting the state requirement for music and arts education.

That is a problem.

Numerous studies have long shown the benefits of arts education. A 2019 comprehensive review of research by the Brookings Institution found that substantially increasing arts education has “remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social and emotional outcomes.”

Fortunately, voters will have a chance next month to approve an initiative that would ensure all California students have access to music and arts education.  

Proposition 28 would require that schools get additional funding for music and arts education equal to 1% of what the state is already required to spend on education. 

The initiative frames arts programs very broadly. Classes could include activities like dance, theater and visual arts, which includes script writing, costume design, animation and even computer coding. Courses would have to be taught by credentialed teachers.  

If approved, Prop. 28 would help close the economic and racial gap that has long persisted in who has access to arts education. That SRI International report also found what it called “a persistent pattern of inequity” — namely, that schools serving low-income students and those with a majority of students of color, consistently offer less access to arts classes.

For far too long, arts education classes have been whittled away by the narrowing of school curriculum, especially during the No Child Left Behind era when school success was measured mostly by test scores in English and math, and to a far lesser extent in science.

The emphasis on these core subjects and tests had an unintended consequence: It eroded parts of the curriculum that motivate many students to get up every day and go to school excited to learn.

Last year, the American Academy Arts and Science declared arts education to be in a “state of crisis.” Moreover, the academy noted that the pandemic has only “intensified that crisis exponentially,” as it was difficult, if not impossible, to effectively offer classes online, and many arts organizations that worked closely with schools barely survived, or even shut down. 

One positive sign is that Prop. 28 has stirred no controversy — and there is no formal opposition to it. But one danger is that some voters will zero in on the description in the voter handbook which says the initiative will incur “increased costs of $1 billion annually” and vote against it for that reason.

It is true that the initiative directs $1 billion to be spent on arts education, in addition to what the state is already spending on its public schools, diverting those funds from other state programs. But the state would not have to raise any additional money. No additional taxes would be levied. The initiative just specifies that moving forward, the equivalent of 1% of what the state is required by law to spend on K-12 schools — this year about $100 billion — go to arts education.

If approved, Prop. 28 would signify a mindset shift that core academic subjects, as important as those are, shouldn’t crowd out other neglected parts of the school curriculum. 

Not all students will be attracted to the classes that the initiative will subsidize. Some students will be interested in sports or other activities that have nothing to do with the arts. Whatever they do, schools must do more to offer courses and programs that excite students — ones that appeal to the whole child. Prop. 28 will give schools a much-needed nudge in that direction.

Louis Freedberg is a UC Berkeley-trained anthropologist, veteran education journalist and former director of EdSource.    


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