Local public schools are embracing a push to prepare students for work in creative fields, but LAUSD has yet to fund it

By Gary Walker

In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District board voted to make arts education a core subject in its curriculum.

Four months ago, the board gave district officials a Dec. 3 deadline to produce a budget for the school district’s Arts Education and Creative Cultural Network Plan, which aims to prepare students for work in creative and technology-based fields by increasing arts-related course offerings and increased faculty support.

That deadline, however, came and went without so much as a “the check’s in the mail”— leaving public school officials and parents to wonder whether music and arts funding is coming at all.

“I see this as an absolute conflict between two opposing views on what public education should look like: Those who want to see arts as a core subject, and those who are only concerned about test scores and offering students a limited education,” said Karen Wolfe, a Venice Neighborhood Council Education Committee member whose daughter attends Marina Del Rey Middle School.

Last year the school hired a ballet teacher and began requiring all of its students to take dance classes, said Marina Del Rey Middle School Performing Arts Coordinator Nancy Pierandozzi.

Venice High School, Mark Twain Middle School and Grand View Boulevard and Broadway elementary schools have also begun integrating performing arts content into English/language arts classes.

That combination has for some students resulted in a drastic turnaround in attendance and academic achievement, said LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, whose district includes schools in Mar Vista, Westchester, Del Rey and Venice.

Author of the September resolution calling for an arts budget, Zimmer has pledged to push Supt. John Deasy for answers when school is back in session later this month.

Deasy could not be reached.

years of funding cuts that threatened arts programs, Gov. Jerry Brown’s local control funding formula is gradually rebuilding the school district’s budget with annual increases of up to $188 million per year, plus another $113 million over the next two years to implement new Common Core standards.

But LAUSD, which recently spent $1 billion in school construction bond money to purchase Apple iPads for each of its 600,000-plus students, also has many needs for that cash — restoring teaching positions cut by layoffs and smaller class sizes among them.

Zimmer has voiced support for adding more teachers and seeing teachers get raises eventually, but he said the immediate priority is making certain that LAUSD students have a well-rounded curriculum.

“While they are all priorities, I would have to choose a long-term solution to a short-term investment,” Zimmer said. “It’s very hard to prioritize between a school library and the arts.”

For Wolfe, arts education is essential to a robust curriculum. She contends that that reduced arts programming puts public schools at a competitive disadvantage against charters and other special magnet programs that compete for student enrollment, the largest factor in state funding for schools.

“In order to be competitive with these specialty schools, you have to offer a well-rounded education,” Wolfe said. “You need more that just the [current core subjects].”

Supporters of arts education say it helps kids learn the kinds of critical thinking skills that upcoming Common Core testing will measure.

“The Common Core Standards bus is leaving the station and we need to be on that bus,” California Arts Council Director Craig Watson said. “Arts should be considered on equal footing on a school district’s priority list.”

Watson pointed to a study by UCLA professor Dr. James Catteral that low-income students who were highly engaged in performing arts at their middle or high school did better in college, tended to be more satisfied with their chosen fields and participated more in the political process than the group that did not have a strong arts background.

Pierandozzi also views music, dance and other art forms as not just a supplement to a student’s education, but a tool for engagement.

“There’s a cultural component to art that appeals to kids,” she said. “There’s a magical, transformative quality to the arts. It really speaks to the soul.”

Zimmer is calling for Deasy to produce a written report on budget priorities that includes plans for music and arts spending.

“I don’t know where it will be [in that report],” Zimmer said of arts education plans, “but I expect it to be there.”