Proposition 28 advocates in California warn that chronic underinvestment in arts and music education is risking the state’s future competitive advantage. Prop. 28, on the statewide November ballot, would change California’s constitution to dedicate $800 million to $1 billion a year for arts and music programs.
In 1989, the state constitution was changed by voters through Prop. 98, a school finance mandate setting minimum education funding levels. Today, through Prop. 98’s formula, California is required to spend roughly 40% of the state’s general funds on K-14 education—public schools and community colleges. California is spending $95 billion on K-12 education in its most recent state budget.
Advocates are right to worry whether California’s next generation will be equipped for jobs of the future. Despite spending the equivalent of $17,000 per pupil, California’s students are underperforming the national average on standardized testing. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Program, which is called the nation’s scorecard, shows only 29% of California’s eighth graders were at or above proficiency in mathematics, and 30% were at or above proficiency in reading in 2019, the most recent year available.
It’s fair to ask, why should arts and music education spending be mandated by the state constitution, especially when student proficiency in core areas like reading and math is far from desired? Only a few years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown championed eliminating so-called “categorical funds” which earmark state education money for specific programs. However well-intentioned the funding restrictions are, they inevitably narrow local school officials’ budgeting options. Brown saw this problem plague Oakland during his time as mayor of the city. When he returned to Sacramento, Brown reformed the state’s K-12 finance system by reducing formula complexity and empowering local policymakers who are, by definition, closer to students. Several studies have given this reform high marks, and California school district superintendents have shown widespread support for the new funding formula.
The state government already mandates that school districts provide visual and performing arts instruction for students in first through sixth grade. It also requires them to be offered as an elective, for seventh- and eighth-graders.
To graduate from a California high school, students must also complete a year’s coursework in the arts or supplement this requirement with a foreign language or career technical education. Additionally, nearly half of California’s school districts have independently adopted even more rigorous arts and music graduation requirements on top of the state’s.
The best practices in education finance policy show that governments should be moving away from state spending mandates and toward giving local leaders and schools more control over how money is spent to best serve their students. The more that local school districts are empowered by state government and held accountable by parents and voters, the more that education reforms and innovation can be responsive and effective.
For example, under California’s 2017 District of Choice Program, a school district may designate itself as a District of Choice, which allows students from other localities to enroll in its programs as long as space permits. Under this environment of open enrollment, school districts have been incentivized to build tailored programs, including some schools specializing in the arts, foreign language, science, and technology. Expanding and improving the state’s open enrollment program so that every school district in the state participates could further benefit students.
Going forward, California would benefit from implementing “learn everywhere” policies. The state board could approve education providers offering curricula that allow students to take courses from California’s large array of businesses and nonprofits in the music, arts, and entertainment industries. Students could earn credits while developing skills with professionals from diverse artistic backgrounds.
Arts and music are important for students, and many innovative options are available to California’s schools. Unfortunately, decades of rising state education spending show that an influx of tax dollars does not guarantee improved student outcomes. In this case, Prop. 28 would tie the hands of legislators and school officials with unnecessary budget mandates that ultimately mean less flexibility for students and teachers.
A version of this column first appeared in the Orange County Register.