Proposition 28 a windfall for arts education, but implementation poses challenges

Photo courtesy Oakland School of the Arts.

Arts education has long been hailed for its transformative power, a way to boost everything from test scores to social-emotional learning. Unfortunately, budget woes have cut arts education so close to the bone that only 11% of California schools offer a comprehensive arts education, research suggests. That’s a stark inequity that arts education advocates have long labored to rectify.

“Creativity is a muscle, not a gene, and if it’s a muscle then you can make it stronger,” said Jessica Mele, a program officer specializing in arts education at the Hewlett Foundation. “The problem is that arts education in this country has historically been ruled by assumptions about who can and should be allowed to participate in the arts and a lot of that has to do with race and class and geography.”

While that grim state of affairs is set to change, in the wake of Proposition 28, the groundbreaking Arts and Music in Schools initiative that will provide arts funding to schools, experts say many challenges lie ahead, from uncertainties about how the program will roll out to the ongoing teacher shortage. Such growing pains are to be expected, some say, as the roughly $1 billion program ramps up this fall.

“What we are doing in California with Prop. 28 is truly seismic,” said Austin Beutner, author of Proposition 28. “It’s the largest investment in arts and music in our nation’s history. It’s never been done before.”

The vast scale of the program may also explain why there’s a niggling fear among arts insiders that this huge boost of funding, which is expected to land sometime this fall, must be too good to be true.

“A lot of folks in the arts education feel like they’ve been marginalized for so long that it’s hard for them to conceive of something that centers them,” said Mele. “There are a lot of people in the field who still say, ‘I’ll believe it when the money gets to my school.’”

One key challenge is the lack of clarity regarding the details of exactly how the game-changing program will work. Many remain unsure about the rules, from waivers to audits.

The thrust is clear. All the money must go to arts and music education, but that is broadly defined. The disciplines include (but are not limited to) dance, media arts, music, theater, and visual arts including folk art, painting, sculpture, photography, craft arts, creative expression including graphic arts and design, computer coding, animation, music composition, ensembles, script writing, costume design, film, and video. Each school community is invited to tailor the program to the needs of its students.

“Take inventory, talk to your families,” said Allison Gamlen, visual and performing arts coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education.

“Is it important to you that your child does dance? Or has access to music or visual art? Do you want your kids to learn media arts skills so that they can get careers in Silicon Valley? Survey your students.”

However, some arts education advocates worry a lack of specificity may undermine the program. Estimates of how much funding each district will receive are available, but some say the rules on how to spend it remain unclear.

“This lack of guidance (from the CDE) is hampering local planning for the funds,” said Abe Flores, deputy director of policy and programs at Create CA, an arts advocacy group. “Without staff or timely guidance, we fear the prop is being set up for failure.”

Some say that the CDE, which is administering the program, has not as yet been responsive enough about how to navigate the complexities of the process.

“I want to reiterate the lack of guidance from CDE around calculating the baseline, critical to ensure the ‘supplement, not supplant’ requirement, and outlining the waiver process,” Flores said.

Schools with more than 500 students must use 80% of the funds on staff. Also, this money must be used to supplement existing funds, not supplant them. If a school spends $100 this year, they are expected to spend $100 plus their new allocation next year.

Some school administrators argue that this existing funding, the baseline that Proposition funds can not replace, should not include one-time donations.

Deputy Superintendent Malia Vella clarified that the baseline is defined as all existing funding, “it doesn’t provide exemptions currently.” However, she is also awaiting cleanup language in upcoming trailer bills to the state budget before issuing technical guidance. She also notes the California Department of Education is updating its website with frequently asked questions and advises arts administrators to subscribe to the Proposition 28 listserv at

“We do hope to get clarity and provide audit guidelines,” Vella said. “It’s hard to issue guidance and then say the appropriation has changed, that’s the technical side of things. “I don’t think it serves our LEAs to issue guidance that then gets changed immediately.”

That’s one reason why, at this point, many arts educators are taking a wait-and-see approach. It should be noted that schools have three years to use the funds.

“We’ve tossed around some ideas, but honestly, I don’t want principals in schools to start making a lot of plans until we’re pretty sure what they can do with it,” said Phil Rydeen, coordinator of visual and performing arts at Oakland Unified School District. “There’s still some general fuzziness.”

Another challenge will be staffing. An estimated 15,000 arts teachers will be needed statewide, but experts say there are only about 5,000 credentialed arts teachers in the field right now.

Against the backdrop of the existing teacher shortage, some fear a hiring frenzy may ensue.

“There are more jobs than there are people,” said Eric Engdahl, professor emeritus at CSU East Bay and past president of the California Council on Teacher Education. “We’ve been starving for so long, and suddenly we’re being presented with a banquet, and we don’t know what to do with it.”

Part of the problem is that the arts credential pipeline has shrunk after decades of cutbacks. While there are 64 programs in the state that offer a music credential and 57 that offer a visual arts credential, there are only four programs that focus on theater and two that specialize in dance.

However, experts suggest the talent pool is wider than it looks because there are numerous workarounds. For instance, physical education teachers who were credentialed before 2022 already have dance embedded in their credential, experts say. The same goes for some English teachers automatically having a theater credential.

Plus, you don’t technically need a credential to teach the arts. Proposition 28 requires that at least 80% of the funding be used to hire staff, but they may be “certificated or classified” staff. That means working artists can, and some say should, be part of the mix.

Photo by Jie Wang on Unsplash

“We are blessed with a diversity of talent in California. We have a tremendous diversity of practicing artists, some of whom can become great arts educators,” said Beutner, former LAUSD superintendent. “Right now, the talent and the school don’t meet. So we’re trying to make that initial connection as seamless as possible.”

Beutner hopes to connect working artists with the schools in their midst. The schools get access to professional artists and the artists get a measure of financial stability that’s rare in the arts. Plus, if they discover a passion for teaching, they may decide to pursue a credential, which ensures higher pay.

“There’s something really incredible about a professional artist who comes into the classroom,” said Mele. “They represent what it’s like to be an artist. They show kids that this is a possible career path. They are also not part of the school community, so kids can often open up to teaching artists.”

Connecting the two worlds is critical, as Beutner sees it. One of the ideas is a twist on JammCard, an app that would work like LinkedIn for the arts, Schoolgig.

However, some believe that arts teachers ought to be credentialed because education requires specific expertise. Artists may not be ready for the rigors of the classroom, some warn, particularly in the post-pandemic era with its rampant learning loss and misbehavior.

“Being a great artist or musician doesn’t necessarily mean you are a great teacher,” said Tom DeCaigny, executive director of Create CA, an arts advocacy group. “Model programs typically require significant training on things like classroom management, child development theory, curriculum frameworks, modalities of learning, pedagogy. … In other words, good teaching is not a ‘gig.’”

The best-case scenario, many suggest, is finding ways to tap into the talents of both kinds of art teachers.

“There is this tension that has always existed in the field between the value of teaching artists and the value of credentialed teachers,” Mele said, “but they are both valuable.”

Apart from staffing costs, the rest of the funding can be used for other needs including training, supplies and partnerships with arts education organizations. No more than 1% can go to administration.

Some arts administrators wish there were more wiggle room in how the funds are spent.

“If I had my way, if I could wave a magic wand,” said Rydeen, “I would want that flexibility.”

Beutner argues that investing heavily in arts teachers will pay off in the vitality of the school community at large, bolstering its social-emotional culture.

“One would hope a school builds a program around a dedicated teacher who becomes a part of the community,” he said. “Continuity of people and programs both matter.”

You can apply for a waiver from the 80/20 rule if you need to invest in musical instruments or a kiln, for instance, to launch a new program, but you must show “good cause.”

“An example of a good cause would be a school which is starting a music program. First year, they might need to buy instruments and thereafter just replace or repair a small portion of them,” Beutner said. “So they could ask for a waiver to spend 40% of the funds for the first year for instruments and in subsequent years they would be spending 90% on teaching staff.”

To clarify the process and share ideas, Beutner is currently cooking up a YouTube channel with how-to videos and best practices from arts educators across the state.

“This cross-fertilization of great ideas is not going to happen overnight, but that’s what we’re trying to foster and facilitate,” said Beutner, “We’ve got to build capacity and empower people to make good decisions.”

In arts education, as in the arts, collaboration is often the key. A small school in a rural district might join forces with another school to share a dance teacher, for example.

“The way that this is going to work best is as a coalition, a collaboration between everybody who has skin in the game. It’s teachers, it’s parents, it’s students, it’s arts organizations, it’s teaching artists, it’s school districts, it’s teacher education programs,” said Engdahl. “It’s a big tent, but we all have a part to play, and we all need to be working together.”

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