California voters will decide in November whether to approve a new measure that would allocate up to $1 billion in funding for arts education across the state. (photo by Sigmund via Unsplash)

On November 8, Californians will vote on whether to approve a ballot measure that would require 1% of existing public and charter school funding to be set aside for arts education statewide. If approved, Proposition 28 — also known as the Arts and Music in Schools Funding Guarantee Accountability Act, and one of seven statewide measures in this year’s midterm elections — is estimated to increase funding for music and arts education by as much as $1 billion. 

Supporters argue that Proposition 28 would equalize access to the arts across the state and ensure arts education is not slashed in times of economic downturn. It would guarantee a baseline of funding for pre-K through grade 12 arts education, such as classes in music, visual art, photography, dance, design, and performing arts. And 80% of the funding schools receive would be earmarked for hiring new arts staff, with the rest to be used toward a variety of needs including training, materials, and the development of partnership programs.

“This will give schools the ability to hire an art teacher, or a band instructor, or a union position, all of which have not been historically well-funded in California,” Tom DeCaigny, executive director of the Pasadena-based arts education advocacy coalition Create CA, told Hyperallergic.

Currently, public schools in California are required to provide arts and music education for students between the first and sixth grades as well as arts electives for seventh and eighth graders. However, research indicates that arts education infrastructure across the state is lacking, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. Because schools are not required to provide any specific level of funding for arts education, only one in five public schools have a full-time teacher in their arts and music programs; in 2019, a majority of students grade six and above were not enrolled in any arts classes at all.

Meanwhile, access to arts education is strongly correlated with positive outcomes for students, including better academic performance, test scores, retention in school, and mental health.

If passed, Proposition 28 would allocate funding according to a formula that would focus money in schools located in lower-income neighborhoods. It would not raise taxes, but rather draw from the coffers of California’s general fund; it would not eat into existing education funding, but require that additional funding be provided to schools for arts education. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisory group to the state legislature, the funding increase amounts to under one-half of 1% of the state’s general fund budget.

A graphic from arts advocacy coalition Create CA urging voters to approve Proposition 28 (image courtesy Create CA)

DeCaigny of Create CA noted that “California once had one of the strongest arts education programs in the country.” But in the late 1970s, the passage of Proposition 13 utterly transformed tax policies in the state and how education would be funded — and since then, DeCaigny says that California’s commitment to arts education has floundered. Create CA’s advocacy campaign, he adds, is about trying to “help Californians understand that the arts are not just for wealthy people.”

“It’s not just about museums, the symphony, the opera, the ballet, but rather than the arts are a vehicle for creating a well-rounded person in US democracy,” he said.

Proponents of Proposition 28 include a roster of prominent activists, musicians, artists, and writers including Dolores Huerta, Barbra Streisand, Graham Nash, Herbie Hancock, Katy Perry, and Issa Rae, and arts organizations such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). There is little organized opposition to the measure.

Still, even though California is currently experiencing a record-high budget surplus, some critics worry that Proposition 28 may hamstring legislators when the budget is tighter. Lance Christensen, a candidate for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, belongs to this camp and decried what he called “ballot box budgeting” in an interview with Hyperallergic.

“Who wants to be the person against arts and music, right?” Christensen asked rhetorically. “It sounds really good on paper — of course, we want more arts and music, and all five of my kids play an instrument, sing, dance, do art, and photography — but there are a lot of ways you can provide for our programs that doesn’t require us going to the ballot box.”

Austin Beutner, formerly the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, has led the campaign to get the initiative on the ballot, and has contributed $4.2 million to the effort. Beutner approximates that about 15,000 full- and part-time educators would be hired if Proposition 28 is passed. Arts education, he said, “will better prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow in the creative economy, which is the number one employer in the state of California.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.