Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Obscure state law requires all students be taught the arts

Calabasas High School musical theater students perform
Calabasas High School musical theater students perform "Cool" from their production of West Side Story at the Pantages Theater.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

Listen to

Download this 0MB

As budgets worsened over the past several years, schools throughout California cut where they could, slashing arts budgets so deeply some students have been left with no arts education at all.

Arts educator Carl Schafer of Upland, has been on a campaign to increase that instruction for a year. And in his effort, he found a line in the California education code that shocked him: the state requires arts to be taught to California students.

He'd been advocating for arts education for decades without realizing the state has a law requiring things like dance, music and theater be taught in schools. 

He recently wrote about his discovery for the website Zocalo Public Square.

While browsing through the state Education Code online, I learned (embarrassingly late in my career) that the law couldn’t be clearer. Since 1995, the teaching of the arts has been mandatory in California for grades one to 12.

Section 51210(e) mandates the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA), which includes music, dance, visual art, and theater, be included in the school curriculum for all students in grades one to six. Section 51220(g) mandates that the VAPA be offered to all students in grades seven through 12. Arts is a “course of study,” and Section 51050 states “The governing board of every school district shall enforce in its schools the courses of study”.

In short, if a school district is not teaching the arts right now, it is breaking the law.

The problem?

The law has no teeth. Districts are empowered to police themselves.

"There are requirements for the visual and performing arts in California schools, however there is no enforcement authority to ensure that that happens," said Craig Cheslog, principal advisor to state superintendent of Public instruction Tom Torlakson.

Cheslog said he didn't even know about the law until they met with Schafer.

"I think it's a known problem by people who study it," he said. "I have to admit I didn't know that problem was there until we started doing our research and work to prepare for the meeting that we had with Carl last winter."

Schafer, who officially retired two years ago but still teaches part-time at Cal State Fullerton, said he's determined to continue pushing for the law to be enforced. He's planning to attend a public meeting in a few weeks at the Los Angeles County Office of Education to lobby for districts to abide by the law.

"It's been certainly an education in trying to find, how do you get to the right powers that can make these changes?" he said. "And I'm not done."