In March, Max Branscomb, the fine-arts coordinator for the National City Elementary School District, saw himself as "the king of an island that just sank into the ocean."
He had been the district's public information officer; the arts title was added two years ago when National City decided to implement an ambitious arts-education program for the district's 10 elementary schools.
The first year of the program was spent developing a comprehensive plan to bring a variety of artists into the classrooms to teach students specific subject areas, following a specific curriculum. Before it could be implemented, though, the program was put into limbo earlier this year when the $33,000 needed to fund the second year was cut from the budget, along with dozens of other programs.
"We're left where we were, with the same haphazard art curriculum," said a frustrated Branscomb. One step forward, two steps back.
This is the game arts educators in the California public school system play daily as they attempt to develop arts programs in an era of constant budget crisis. It is a Sisyphean ritual, constantly pushing the rock up the hill, just to have it roll back down.
Through it all, art educators are the ones charged with providing the adults of tomorrow with the fundamental knowledge and skills of the arts, the things Branscomb and others say make us all "more human."
Are they winning the struggle? Or is the rock sliding farther down the hill?
Branscomb would probably vote for the latter. In June, he was laid off.
Though the relative merits of arts education and such subjects as science and math are a constant topic of debate among legislators, educators and parents, almost all agree that basic arts education is an essential part of a child's development. No matter how intense the funding debate, no one stands up at school board meetings and demands that arts education be completely eliminated.
And, barring any major upheaval in the way children are educated in this country, most agree that it is up to the public schools to introduce most of today's children to the creative side of life. Guest performances and workshops by the symphony or the opera are helpful, but they will not give children a fundamental arts education, experts agree.
"If exposure was the same as education, then museum guards would be the most culturally educated people in the world," said Tom Hatfield, executive director of National Art Education Assn., one of many groups searching for ways to improve the quality of arts education in the United States.
In some ways, it is clear that there has been progress. Ten years ago, no state required high school students to take art courses; now 29 states have such requirements, including California.
But, in most districts, it is the smallest of requirements. The San Diego Unified School District is typical, requiring high school students to take one year of fine arts or a foreign language and practical arts class. That appears rather weak now that California state colleges will be requiring a year of fine arts for admission beginning in fall of 1992, a much more definitive requirement.
It may be a long time before local school districts match the state college system and make a year of fine arts a requirement for high school graduation.
In the short term, it would be difficult for schools to find the resources to offer the necessary art classes. And students already have to juggle and squeeze required classes into a six-period day to match the requirements of the college they hope to attend, which is why San Diego city schools will probably lean toward keeping flexibility in their requirements, Asst. Supt. Frank Till said.
Though art educators can be pleased that the new state college requirements recognize the need to include arts in the core curriculum, the requirements for math and science have also risen, putting more pressure on students.
For example, the San Dieguito Union High School District, which covers coastal North County from Del Mar to Encinitas, recently raised its requirements for high school students in almost every area. Instead of three years of English, they must now take four years; three years of math instead of two; and two years of science instead of one. It leaves the students little free time for elective courses.
"It's getting to the point where students will have no choice about anything," said Don Kemp, assistant superintendent of instruction for the San Dieguito district.
With the arts battling science and math for dollars and recognition, arts educators talk like business recruiters. They promote the practical side of taking music and dance courses, and the way the arts buoy the creative thinking aspects of education to produce better lawyers and managers. Students with backgrounds in music, dance, drama and visual arts score higher on verbal and math SATs, they point out.
There is no shortage of organizations and educators concerned about the future of arts education. Most of them have a rhetorical flair.
In March, a statewide Arts Education Advisory Committee, a group of educators and arts experts appointed by state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig issued a release touting a range of recommendations, from including the arts in state assessment programs to launching a "statewide campaign to enhance understanding of how the arts contribute to thinking and learning."
In response, the state Board of Education adopted a policy declaring the arts to be "an integral part of basic education for all students and urging implementation of all the recommendations in the committee's report."
But what does that mean? Arts educators are skeptical as the gap between rhetoric and real support grows wider.
Kay Wagner, the San Diego Unified School District's program manager for the visual and performing arts, is in charge of developing the fine-arts education for the 121,000 students in city schools. She has no doubts about how the arts fared in the latest round of budget cuts last spring.
"We came out badly," she said, "bottom of the heap."
Most damaging, from Wagner's point of view, was the loss of a "resource" teacher, one of three in Wagner's department who coordinate programs and teach teachers about art. This fall the district is adopting new arts textbooks. State funds are tied to the adoption of those textbooks, which may be ineffective without the resource teachers to introduce the books to the teachers.
"The thing I worry most about is that the new materials won't be able to be used," Wagner said. "They'll just sit there unless someone is around to introduce them."
Yet there was good news in the 1991-92 budget discussions for Wagner. The arts, once lumped into the humanities category, were separated into their own department for organizational and budget purposes, which should help the struggle for funds. And there were no cuts from the programs that have been implemented during the past 10 years.
"Just the fact that they didn't cut was taken as a positive sign," school board member Ann Armstrong said.
With every aspect of the state budget facing intense scrutiny, tough decisions have to be made. Sports and other extracurricular activities are equally persuasive about how their disciplines make us more human.
Earlier this year, San Diego city schools' Supt. Tom Payzant was faced with cutting $37 million from the district's budget.
"I am an advocate of the arts," Payzant wrote in a recent commentary for The Times. "The arts must be be a part of every child's basic education."
But, faced with the need to cut, he proposed eliminating the instrumental-music program for elementary schools.
"We have never had an elementary instrumental-music program for all the students, so the tough choice was to recommend cutting the partial program so other, more important, basic programs can be provided for every student," Payzant wrote.
In a sense, Wagner agreed with Payzant's assessment. Though she fought for the program, she agrees it is incomplete.
The music program was started in 1983, when San Diego had only 10 music teachers. A plan was adopted to gradually hire music teachers to develop music programs at the district's 110 elementary schools.
The district now has 16 music teachers, a definite improvement. But 28 elementary schools that qualify still don't have any music programs. That's not too unusual in California. San Francisco public schools have a similar program, with 14 music teachers serving 72 elementary schools.
According to a report by the National Education Assn., California ranked last in music teacher-student ratio, with one teacher for every 1,535 students.
As it turned out, the San Diego music program wasn't cut in the recent round of budget discussions. But no music teachers will be added this year.
Wagner has been fighting this one step forward, two steps back battle for eight years, winning some and losing some. She proudly points to a program that sends 45 art and music teachers to elementary schools to teach those subjects during teachers' prep time, their daily break.
But those 45 teachers must cover the 110 elementary schools, which also makes the program a source of frustration for Wagner because there is little chance of increasing the number of teachers.
"I'm not sure you can go to a class for one hour a week and call it an art program," she said.
The school board's Armstrong has had a firsthand look at the changing quality of arts education in San Diego. Her three children graduated from local public schools within 10 years of each other.
Her oldest, who graduated from Clairemont High School in 1974, was offered art-enrichment programs, invitational summer workshops and a school orchestra. By the time her youngest graduated from University City High School in 1984, there was neither a school orchestra nor a school band for her.
"It's too bad, because she played piano and harp," Armstrong said.
Yet, Armstrong sees some progress in the way schools are approaching arts education. More educators understand the importance of the arts, and they are "slowly recognizing that this is something we almost got rid of, but that it is slowly getting back into the curriculum," she said.
The most dramatic art change in San Diego city schools, Armstrong said, was the establishment of the Young at Art program, begun in 1988 with a $3-million grant from the Maxwell H. Gluck Foundation; $1.5 million of that went to the schools for a three-year program to hire working artists to go into classrooms to work directly with students. The other half of the grant went to the San Diego Museum of Art to develop programs for students.
Young at Art has been the most visible effort outside the district-funding process to help expose students to the arts on a regular basis. The schools' original money has run out, but benefactor Muriel Gluck recently promised the city schools an additional $50,000 to continue the program on the condition that it be matched by other sources, Wagner said. Wagner hopes to raise matching funds from PTAs, and community-based or national foundations. "We've been looking all along, and now we're making a more desperate search."
Young at Art succeeded on many levels, according to Wagner, not the least of which was by providing students with role models, giving them a chance to meet real working artists.
"If you expect to develop an art community, you need to promote jobs for artists," Wagner said.
Besides Young at Art, there are other opportunities within the city school system that didn't exist a few years ago.
San Diego's School for the Creative and Performing Arts, for grades 4 through 12, emphasizes the performing arts and often wins raves for its programs and the high test scores of its students in verbal areas. The same can be said of Zamorano Elementary, the "magnet" school for fine arts, and Oak Park, the music magnet. Each offers students specialized instruction, a chance to excel at arts.
But there are waiting lists for each school, and, although there is a desire to provide more in-depth arts programs, the legal basis for the magnets is a court-supervised integration plan dating back to the late 1970s.
For those students who don't go to these schools, the type and quality of arts classes and resources can vary tremendously.
"The general public assumes that schools are like they were when they were there," said Sally Ryan, program administrator for the visual and performing arts for San Francisco Public Schools. "Things have changed."
Adults who attended California schools 20 to 30 years ago, may remember almost daily arts and crafts programs and required music classes. But there is little time and money for regular programs these days.
Music and dance are common victims. A teacher must have special appreciation and patience to teach dance, not to mention facilities, wood floors and room for the kids to move. Music requires even more specialized instruction.
A 1985 study by the National Endowment for the Arts said 80% of modern adults had not taken a music appreciation course by the time they were 24.
"I remember when I was in school learning about the fundamental things in music, things like the different notes," said Kathi Stockdale, chief deputy director of the California Arts Council. "I've got an 11-year-old who probably doesn't know that type of thing because he doesn't have music teachers who spend time with him.
"If you know the fundamentals, there is better chance of better understanding the music."
A common complaint of arts educators and parents is that there is no coordination, no overall plan for sparking an interest in the arts and developing it as students progress through the elementary schools and into the secondary schools.
Ironically, there is a state framework for teaching arts to California students, a general guidebook. It was developed and adopted in 1982 and revised slightly in 1989. Wagner helped write it.
But even Wagner has to admit that it is far from the effective tool it was meant to be.
"Teachers are aware of the framework, but I think it is difficult to follow if you don't have time to instruct the teachers on how to follow it," she said.
Of course, following the framework and instituting comprehensive programs wouldn't be a problem if funds weren't so short. The debate usually is not over whether students should learn about the arts, or how they should learn about the arts, but whether to buy test tubes or trumpets, baseballs or brushes.
The arts community agrees with the schools that not enough money is being spent by museums and others arts organizations to educate the next generation.
According to a report from the National Commission on Music Education, in 1989 the National Science Foundation spent 10% of its $1.8-billion budget on education, while the National Endowment for the Arts spent only 3.5% of its budget on education.
When money is spent, there are constant accusations that it is being misspent.
"We have found a gap between commitment and resources for arts education and the actual practice of arts education in the classrooms," National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Frank Hodsoll wrote in a recent report. "Resources are being provided, but they are not being used to give opportunity to all, or even most, students to become culturally literate."
What to do with money is a constant topic of debate. Some say elementary school teachers need to become better art teachers. Others say that it is a waste of time to try to make teachers experts on everything, that it is better to bring in real experts.
"Artists have the training, artists are dedicated to the field," said Juan Carrillo of the California Arts Council.
Standing in a hall of the San Diego Convention Center, surrounded by exhibits representing private organizations participating in an arts education fair, Wagner was asked how she can complain about a lack of support for the arts, when there are so many organizations clearly eager to assist the schools.
"We do get funding through these programs, and it does great things," she said slowly, carefully choosing her words, trying to be tactful. "But it's not always where the need is."
Many educators feel there must be more emphasis in the classroom. Visiting programs, they say, should be viewed as a supplement, not as the basis of an arts education.
Young at Art, most agree, was a successful program, but "it's not an arts curriculum," Wagner said. "It's the fun part of doing something extra."
At the same time, arts educators are more than a little aware that funds for in-classroom programs will be hard to get from the district or the state in the years to come. Their goals are tempered by reality.
"I would like to see the emphasis on bringing in the kinds of artists that would do good things with the children and help the teachers," the school board's Armstrong said. "I think that's possible."
The wish lists of arts educators are not as grand as they once were: "I would just like to see arts be part of the core of education in San Diego," Wagner said. "I would like students in every neighborhood school to have the opportunity to take art, theater, music and dance classes."
It sounds like such a simple goal.
* ON TUESDAY: Many arts groups have launched efforts to help pupils as schools trim arts spending. What do these programs do and how effective are they?