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KPCC survey: Few Southern California school districts can afford comprehensive arts instruction

Students participate in a figure drawing class during the four-week California State Summer School for the Arts program at CalArts.
Students participate in a figure drawing class during the four-week California State Summer School for the Arts program at CalArts.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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See survey results | KPCC arts education coverage

While state law requires school districts to give students access to music, dance, theater and visual arts instruction from first to 12th grade, few Southern California school districts responding to a survey by KPCC said they actually offer that level of arts access. Of the respondents, two dozen told KPCC they provide comprehensive arts access to fewer than half of their students.

The results were compiled from responses by 41 districts in Orange, Riverside, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

“It has been a challenge to maintain these programs due to state budget cuts over the past 5-6 years,” wrote Nick Salerno, superintendent of El Monte Union High School District, which serves ninth-12th graders. Salerno reported that more than 80 percent of his students are offered instruction in music, theater and visual arts – but no more than 10 percent have access to dance instruction.

School officials told KPCC funding is the biggest obstacle to providing arts instruction.

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“We have an exceptional program, but it is due to the funding efforts of our La Canada Flintridge Educational Foundation,” wrote La Cañada Unified Superintendent Wendy Sinnette, who said her district offers visual arts, music and theater to all first-12th grade students. “Without them, our programs would be limited due to funding.”

The survey also showed what kind of arts instruction Southern California kids are most likely to get in school. For instance, dance instruction is hard to come by. According to responses, visual arts and music are fairly common.

The three districts reporting the highest level of arts access across all K-12 grade levels had school lunch populations under 25 percent, but it’s not possible to draw a direct link between access to arts instruction in schools and poverty based on the current level of response to this survey.

The survey results are not scientific. School districts self-reported; participation was voluntary, and many school districts – including Los Angeles Unified and Long Beach Unified – did not respond.

The California Education Code requires districts to teach dance, visual arts, music and theater every year from first to sixth grade. For students in seventh-12th grade, districts have to offer all four art forms, but the state doesn’t require students to take the classes.

There’s no penalty to school districts that don’t comply. State education officials don’t even check.

No K-12 school districts reported offering all four art forms to every student, every year. On average, only one in three students was offered full arts access, according to KPCC survey results from the K-12 districts.

The results largely mirror national trends, according to Scott Jones, senior associate for research and policy at the Arts Education Partnership, a national coalition based in Washington, that works to ensure high quality arts education for every child.

“It’s amazing to see the consistency across the national data down into the very specific regional data,” he said.

There are some differences. Nationally, 59 percent of schools offer theater education and 23 percent of schools offer dance to high school students, according to Jones.

The majority offered theater

Of the Southern California districts with high schools that answered KPCC’s survey, the majority said they offered theater to more than 80 percent of students. Only 47 percent said they offered dance at that same level, but that's still better than the national average.

Jones said this may be the real effect of California’s education code requiring all four art forms: it may encourage districts to offer theater and dance classes, which are harder to find in schools across the country than visual arts and music.

Beyond funding, many school officials said they don’t have the time in the school day – or the right staff – to expand arts access.

“There is very little money to do the things we would like to do,” wrote Lisa Bloom, director of instruction and special projects for the Castaic Union School District. “There are very few staff members with enough time to write grants for the things we need.”

The district adopted an arts plan in 2006 and shares training with four other school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley.

The three districts that cited the highest level of arts access across all K-12 grade levels are Capistrano Unified, Irvine Unified and Las Virgenes Unified. All have free-lunch populations of 24 percent or less.

Capistrano Unified reported offering more than 80 percent of its middle school and high school students access to all four art forms. The district’s first to sixth graders had far less access: 10 percent or fewer received instruction every year in dance and theater.

Las Virgenes offered all four art forms to more than 80 percent of its elementary and high school students, with middle schoolers receiving less access. Irvine Unified offered more than 80 percent of its high schoolers access to all four art forms – but fewer elementary and middle school students received dance and theater instruction.

Only three districts with elementary students reported they provide dance instruction to more than 80 percent of students: Fullerton School District, Moorpark Unified and Las Virgenes Unified School District. In those districts 44 percent, 34 percent and 6 percent receive free or reduced lunch, respectively, defying a pattern.

Some district officials contacted by KPCC said estimating arts instruction and access can be challenging, and accurate numbers aren’t always readily available.

Other findings:

Many districts said help from outside organizations and parent fundraising – both with providing arts instructors and funding - was instrumental in helping them get high quality arts access to more students.

Some said arts integration, where general classroom teachers meld the arts into subjects like math and history, helped them increase access. That’s one of the strategies Castaic Union uses. All but 10 districts reported using arts integration techniques to some degree.

It is also the main strategy L.A. Unified officials are proposing for their $15.7 million arts expansion.

The average size of school districts that responded to the survey was about 18,700 students. The largest to complete the survey was Santa Ana Unified, which has about 57,000 students. It’s the third largest district in Southern California’s five counties.

The survey was conducted online and respondents were required to have permission from the superintendent to complete the survey.

For details on how to participate in the survey contact Mary Plummer via email:

Selected survey results

Notes about this data: This graph is based on self-reported arts access from K-12 districts that provided usable data. Some school districts contacted by KPCC reported that arts access was hard to estimate. The free and reduced lunch percentages come from 2012-2013 California Department of Education data, the most recent numbers available. For the survey results, KPCC used averages when a range was given.