Voters approved unprecedented funding for arts education; here’s how we fulfill that promise

Courtesy: Santee Education Complex

Music class at Santee Education Complex.

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The passing of Proposition 28: California’s Art and Music K-12 Education Funding Initiative is an exciting advance for historically underfunded arts education programs in schools. The initiative allocates money for 15,000 new positions, almost doubling the current number of certified teachers who provide visual and performing arts instruction in California’s public schools. To put it in perspective, this increase of 15,000 positions is equivalent to nearly 5% of the statewide teacher workforce.

Given existing hiring difficulties due to an ongoing teacher shortage compounded by understaffed arts education offices at the district level, the implementation of this initiative is ripe to fail. Miserably.

But this does not need to be the case. If ever there was a time for innovation and out-of-the-box ideas, this is it. After all, creatively solving complex problems is what we in the arts do best — this is our time to shine!

A recruitment effort of this scale will require both short- and long-term strategies to attract and hire new teachers to the profession. Currently, California relies on a myriad of nonprofit organizations to supply non-credentialed “teaching artists” as instructors who co-teach with certified teachers or lead after-school programs. These practicing artists with K-12 instructional experience should be offered a pathway to a credential and full-time employment by districts through residency models that let them teach in the classroom while simultaneously completing required coursework. In recent years, Chicago Public Schools has successfully rolled out a residency program to grow their bench of dance teachers, with candidates earning, in just over one year, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Loyola University Chicago along with a credential in dance.

Looking further down the road, more colleges and universities need to provide undergraduate programs in arts education, ensuring that the state is provided with an annual crop of fully certified new teachers each year. This is particularly important for teachers of dance and theater, disciplines that are undersupported across the state — only a handful of California State University teacher preparation programs offer degrees in theater or dance education, while University of California schools offer no credential-granting programs for undergraduates. To further expand the catalog of arts programming, now is the time to develop a credential for media arts instructors who can teach the new state standards adopted in 2019.

To prepare for this hiring blitz, school principals will require guidance on how to screen candidates and support teachers in positions they have never managed. In California, many elementary schools have not had a full-time arts teacher on staff for decades. Principals should be advised to provide dedicated classroom space and appropriate materials for teaching in the designated arts discipline. “Art on a cart” and choreographing on the soccer field will neither serve our students nor provide arts teachers with the working conditions they deserve. Schools should be directed to access funding sources from local school planning and Covid relief grants to build out arts spaces and purchase necessary materials.

Despite this preparation and everyone’s best efforts, the full implementation of this initiative will take years. Districts should adopt policies that prioritize hiring and incentivize candidates to work in the highest-need communities and schools where investment in the arts has been limited. (The ballot initiative already provides additional funding for schools serving economically disadvantaged students.) By prioritizing hiring at these schools, the arts can provide their proven positive impacts on school culture, attendance, perseverance and self-efficacy to the schools most in need as quickly as possible.

Even after these many vacancies are filled, attention will shift to retaining these new teachers and supporting high-quality instruction. While many more schools will now be able to provide their students with an arts education, its impact will be limited if the quality of instruction is inconsistent or improperly supported. Most districts will likely need to increase their administrative workforce to provide substantial coaching and professional development programs for these new teachers. And many teachers hired from this initiative may be the only arts teacher at their school, which makes providing district-level collaboration and peer support critical for fostering professional connection.

This is truly an exciting time for arts education and arts educators across the state, but the challenges we face are significant. We need swift and strategic action from schools, districts and the state to make the most of this opportunity to bring teaching and learning in the arts to millions of California students. The exact path for the recruitment, hiring and retention of thousands of arts teachers is still unclear, but it will require creativity and collaboration – some of the many skills learned through the arts – to make this vision a reality.

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Alex Karas is the director of arts education at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization that manages 20 LA Unified public schools in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and Watts.

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