County Plan Is Helping Districts Replenish Starving Arts Budgets

Times Staff Writer

When the Los Angeles County Arts Commission approached Tom Whaley about participating in a 10-year program to improve arts education in the Santa Monica and Malibu schools, he was more than a little skeptical.

“I was always about bringing in more art or more dance,” said Whaley, arts coordinator for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where taxpayers and community donors have helped maintain music, drama, art and dance on campuses during lean budget times. The county’s more long-term approach held little appeal.

But Whaley soon came to see the value of the effort, designed to help the 80 Los Angeles County school districts develop plans for putting arts into the curricula for all students and to encourage school boards to work toward committing 5% of their operating budgets to arts education.


Two years after his district signed on in 2003, Whaley believes the county’s approach is the way to go.

“This is about systemic change,” Whaley said of “Arts for All: Los Angeles County Regional Blueprint for Arts Education.”

It is a modest program, at least in terms of making up for years of diminished funding for the arts. Many of the county’s 1,800 public schools provide a spotty arts program at best. And, the emphasis on standardized testing coupled with district budget shortages in recent years have left arts educators wondering whether their subjects will ever be a school priority.

But Arts for All creators believe that having school boards approve long-range policies will help restore arts education at all levels.

As the Arts Commission prepares to release a progress report today, evidence shows that some districts are embracing at least part of the program.

Of the 60 districts, plus the county Office of Education, that participated in a recent survey, more than a third have developed an overall arts education policy, and a similar number of school boards are either working on or have approved plans for carrying them out.


Just 12% have an arts coordinator on staff and 15% have met the Arts for All budget goal. Only 10% have at least one credentialed arts teacher for every 400 students, and 13% reported having no credentialed arts teacher.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which adopted its own plan before the county commission launched Arts for All, estimated it devotes from 2% to 5% of its multibillion dollar budget to arts education. It has a coordinator overseeing the arts program but the district has just one credentialed arts teacher for every 496 students.

Laura Zucker, the Arts Commission’s executive director, said such seemingly modest progress is a sign that “the pendulum is now swinging back in a big way, even if people don’t realize it.”

The county launched Arts for All three years ago, offering assistance to school districts that commit to adding to their arts programs. Sixteen districts have signed up. Individuals and companies in the entertainment industry chipped in to help participating districts pay for arts coordinators and some high-priority projects.

The Arts Commission also created a website,, listing more than 175 programs that meet California arts curriculum standards and that schools can use. The service is available to all schools, regardless of whether their districts have joined Arts for All.

Rosemead School District was able to offer very few arts programs to its 3,400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade when it joined Arts for All two years ago, recalled Andre Sauvageau. The Muscatel Middle School vice principal doubles as the district’s arts coordinator.

“It’s really energized us, and there is a lot of enthusiasm now,” Sauvageau said, noting that the school board has approved an arts education policy and is seeking ways to pay for new classes. More arts education “is something everybody’s always wanted,” he said, “and now we’re all focused on it.”

Compton Unified School District also used Arts for All’s help to start reintroducing a broader arts curriculum for its 30,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Associate Supt. Erlinda Martinez.

The school board approved an arts policy earlier this year and set aside about $250,000 to buy musical instruments, Martinez said. The district conducted a survey of what few programs it had and outlined its needs. Now it is hoping to add a full-time arts coordinator and has formed an education foundation to help add to the arts budget.

“It organized us, really focused us on taking a really solid look at our needs,” Martinez said of Arts for All. “It helped us outline what is doable in a short time and what we can do over a longer period of time.”

Even in the Santa Monica-Malibu district, which has a thriving arts curriculum, officials say the county program is helping them build on what they already have. The district’s arts programs benefit from an education foundation, PTAs at each school that raise funds to supplement state money, a 2003 voter-approved parcel tax for schools, and contributions from both cities in the district.

The school board earmarked $3.5 million this year, 3.4% of its general operating budget, for arts education.

Santa Monica High School has five orchestras -- one of which played at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2002 -- six choral groups, several bands, advanced placement art classes and an art gallery that features the work of community professionals, students and faculty.

Even with all the financial help, parents still are asked to pitch in for paintbrushes, canvases and other materials. The budget for supplies -- less than $7 per student each semester -- is still inadequate, said Amy Bouse, an Advanced Placement art teacher.

“It’s certainly good to have that support and advocacy,” Bouse said of Arts for All. “But in terms of real change, it’s not yet palpable.”