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LA Unified makes arts education a 'core subject'

Actor Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame addresses the L.A. Unified school board about the importance of arts education and why it should be a 'core subject.' The board agreed unanimously. (Oct. 9, 2012)
Actor Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame addresses the L.A. Unified school board about the importance of arts education and why it should be a 'core subject.' The board agreed unanimously. (Oct. 9, 2012)
Tami Abdollah/KPCC

The L.A. Unified school board unanimously approved a measure Tuesday that will make arts education a "core subject," prohibit further cuts to the arts, and ultimately restore some money to arts programs.

The measure, sponsored by board member Nury Martinez, is a recommitment to the arts by a district that has been battered by $1.5 billion in cuts to its operating budget over the last three years as state support for education has dwindled.

"For me this is an issue of social justice and educational equity," Martinez said. "...Children learn in many different ways...we have to recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning doesn't work for all children."

On Tuesday, comic actor Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong addressed the board in support for the measure.

"Arts education goes to making a whole person, it makes them aware of their divine nature, and gives them sympathy for everybody around them," Marin said. "We as a culture, art is the only thing we leave behind. For the life of me, I can't think of a museum dedicated to the great business deals of the past, but 2,000 years later people go see the pyramids, the 'Mona Lisa,' the Eiffel Tower, and Picasso's 'Guernica.'"

Monica Horan, one of the stars in the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," also spoke to the board. Nigel Lythgoe, the producer of TV's "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance" wrote a letter of support. Other members of the arts community also showed up in force.

Since 1999, the school district has invested more than $300 million in its nationally-recognized elementary arts program, Martinez said. But L.A. Unified has made a 40% reduction to that since 2008 and considered it for elimination this past budget year.

The measure requires a restoration of arts education funds to 2007-08 funding levels within five years. Within 10 years, it aims to increase the number of arts teachers to match similar urban school districts so that each middle school can offer at least three arts disciplines.

In the late 1990s, L.A. Unified committed to a 10-year plan to restore arts education to all schools and students in the district. Then-school board member Valerie Fields sponsored the measure and led that effort, which included a Blue Ribbon Committee of arts leaders.

Fields said that 10-year plan was ultimately a success, but it required time and participation from people beyond the schools.  

"I knew we couldn't do it overnight," Fields said in an interview with KPCC. "First of all, the teachers haven't been trained in the arts. The teachers colleges were not making an empahsis in teaching teachers to teach art because there wasn't much art going on in the schools. So what's the point?"

The district renewed its 10-year plan with an interim plan, said L.A. Unified senior arts coordinator Steven McCarthy.

Now he's the only staffer of the school district's "arts education branch." It used to include about 20 people. With a greater awareness for the importance of arts education today, the district hasn't singled out the arts for cuts as much as before, he said - but cuts have happened amid the economic downturn.

"When things start getting cut, legal mandates win, and other things fall to the wayside, " McCarthy said. "Although the ed code does say the arts must be taught, it's not enforced except in the high school arena, where there is a one-year requirement for graduation."

McCarthy said Martinez's measure "changes the course of history" by using the word "core" as the district prepares to roll out the new "Common Core" curriculum.

"The use of the term 'core' says that every child will be entitled to it, and when you use the word 'core,' there’s a financial expectation attached to it," McCarthy said. "So when cuts are made, now that the arts are core, cuts will need to be spread across all the disciplines. Now the arts can be seen as important as social studies, science, math and language arts."

Officials said the measure ensures that every child, not just "affluent or lucky" ones, will have access to the arts now.

But economic realities, and the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in new cuts if taxpayers don't pass a ballot initiative to raise taxes in November, mean that details on how the district rolls out this new effort are still vague.

The measure creates budgeting provisions to help cover teachers' costs for arts supplies and professional development. The idea, McCarthy and other arts community leaders say, is to integrate arts education into all subject areas so that it is impossible to target arts education for cuts.

Elementary classroom teachers are credentialed to teach all subjects, so professional development that instructs them in how to incorporate the arts into their various lesson plans may be the ticket, McCarthy said. But that approach presents other problems.

"So many of our teachers are products of Proposition 13 where arts were cut in the '70s, so they grew up without the arts themselves, so we need to be able to offer foundational lessons in the arts so they could better serve our students," McCarthy said. 

As less money made its way into state coffers, education often took the hardest hit - and arts education was often the first to go.

Over the years, arts education "just sort of disappeared, there were teachers who taught the arts but there was nothing mandatory and there was nothing organized about it," Fields said. "If your kid had a teacher who was interested in the arts and educated in the arts your kid got an arts education, but the teacher right next door might not have had interest or the knowledge of how to teach arts. I walked in some classes where teachers said 'OK kids take your crayons, now you draw,' and that was the extent of arts education. And that's not adequate."

Fields said the new push to recommit to arts education is "wonderful" and was happy the arts community was helping advocate for it.

On Monday, the L.A. Fund for Public Education unveiled a $4 million campaign to increase awareness of the importance of arts education; artists Barbara Kruger, Justin Bieber and Ryan Seacrest have joined that effort.

Martinez said the Fund has committed to raising money for awarding grants to pilot professional development throughout the district at a handful of schools. It would disseminate best practices to other schools as the economy improved, she said.

Now, Superintendent John Deasy must return to the board by next July 1 with a plan to enact "Arts at the Core" with funding strategies, ways to collect data to measure student learning through the arts, professional development for instructors, and benchmarks for success.

Jim Herr, a senior manager of Global Corporate Citizenship at Boeing, told the board Tuesday that the company has poured $3.5 million into arts education over five years. 

"Not because we want to see the next generation of painter or dancer or singer or musician," Herr said. "Those are all wonderful things, but we're investing because we need those skills in our future workforce. We can teach anybody to write code...we don't need people to just write code, we need people who have creative problem-solving skills...creative imagination, those are the skills arts education brings to the table for us."

Read more: LAUSD arts funding cut 76% in five years

Portrait in numbers of LAUSD's decline in arts education

$4 million fund drive puts LAUSD arts education on center stage

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).