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Three young Black Lives Matter protestors hold their drumsticks high in a fist with a drum tied around their waist.
Black Lives Matter protestors hold their drumsticks high in a fist during a youth led march in Los Angeles. | Courtesy of Project KnuckleHead

Arts Education is a Civil Right Inseparable from Freedom

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Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinion expressed here is solely of the author and does not reflect the views of PBS SoCal, KCET or Link TV.


It was Freedom Summer 2020, and the frontlines of protests mirrored the front row of concerts. Vibrant mural banners with the names of martyrs and the words "BLACK LIVES MATTER" could be seen everywhere, while dancers moved with the grace of butterflies as they marched through the streets.

Despite being a civil rights lawyer, the first invite I received to protest that summer was as a drummer. The Youth Justice Coalition reached out and to me to lead a drum troupe during their youth-led march in Los Angeles. I proudly accepted and loaded up the bucket drums from my non-profit Project Knucklehead in my car.

When I arrived, I found many youth excited to drum and uplift our message and release our frustrations. Aztec drummers and dancers blessed the space before speakers shared powerful and tragic stories about the police violence we are trying to end. Whether protesters knew it or not, they were receiving ancient and ancestral medicine through the arts. The next day, our rhythms continued to echo through a news headline that read "Hundreds of youth lead rhythmic protest at LA City Hall on Friday." Our drums became the heartbeat for the marches while providing youth with something millions of California students are not receiving in their schools despite their right to it: arts education

Explore the values that arts education provides for all young people and communities. Watch this preview.
Arts Education (Preview)

With millions of students limited to the confines of their home during the pandemic, families have had to find creative ways to stay entertained and emotionally healthy. Mental health experts recommend using the arts to combat social isolation and viral videos from Italy to New York demonstrate its power. Hundreds of studies have confirmed the positive impact of the arts on students and communities, yet so many in the country continue to be deprived. It is time for us to embrace arts education as a civil right under our historically oppressive education system.

America's education system was built to perpetuate the inequalities ingrained in other aspects of society. For centuries, enslaved Africans were forbidden from reading and women were barred from the nation's top colleges. For Native Americans, common schools were places of cultural genocide that attempted to "kill the indian … save the man." An educated, free-thinking mind is a threat to the status quo, but also key to innovation and a nation's progress — even our nation's founding documents claim to promise freedom and equality for all. Although significant progress has been made to deliver equal education to all students, we have not reached the Promised Land. One of the areas with the starkest inequities is arts education, especially in California. We're still dealing with the inequalities and injustices that were the foundation of America. Through the denial of arts education, students of color are disproportionately being denied the right to their soul and creative potential. In L.A. County, 72% of majority white schools had a full-time music teacher compared to 41% of majority Black schools and 36% of majority Latinx schools.

A protestor rallies people as he plays a bucket turned drum.
The drums the protestors carried became the heartbeat of the march as they told their stories of police violence and advocacy for arts education. | Courtesy of Project KnuckleHead

Art has the power to both alleviate pain or perpetuate inequality. Mountains of research demonstrate art's ability to increase academic achievement, graduation rates, listening skills, social-emotional learning, vocabulary, math test scores, creative thinking, community, address hyperactivity, discipline problems and other areas educators struggle with today. Conversely, lack of access to art can impact the wellness, voice, identity and life trajectory of an individual. Here in California, high school students must complete an arts course to even be considered for admission into any of 33 CSU/UC state universities. So the thousands of students at schools with little or no art access have to limit their aspirations and are ineligible for admission into the state universities. Why? Because they live in the "wrong" ZIP code, and their school does not provide the opportunity. This is the definition of systematic inequality, and it perpetuates the historic injustices suffered by communities of color. Also, since arts education increases the academic achievement of those fortunate enough to receive, art gaps contribute to the persistent achievement/opportunity gap between students as well.

An x-ray of a brain is placed beside a young man painting.
An x-ray of a brain is placed beside a young man painting. | Still from Artbound "Arts Education"

Despite being considered one of the creative capitals of the world, California lags significantly when it comes to providing arts education.
Amir Whitaker

California students are guaranteed the right to a comprehensive arts education under the California Education Code. However, 88% of secondary schools are failing to provide full access. Despite being considered one of the creative capitals of the world, California lags significantly when it comes to providing arts education. As the chart below illustrates, less than 40% of California's students are enrolled in an arts course compared to 68% in Arizona or 75% in North Carolina.

Percent of Students Enrolled in Arts by State
Less than 40% of California students have access to an arts course, a stark difference from other states. | Arts Ed Data Project

A recent national report comparing arts access in middle schools across the country found California was among the worst. Only 20% of middle school students here reported arts access. The national average was 37% and the only states with less access than California were Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Nevada. California continues to fall behind the nation as states like Illinois and New Jersey take measures to ensure all students have access to arts education. Governor Newsom has repeatedly failed to address inadequate arts education in his budget despite claiming that increasing arts access in San Francisco schools was his proudest moment as Mayor.

Public officials often attributed the decline of arts education in California to the Proposition 13 reform of the 1970s that limited the amount of tax revenue available for schools, and although communities lose over $12 billion a year due to the Prop 13 commercial property tax loophole alone, other issues are also at play when it comes to depriving students of art education. Many school districts are now spending more money on police and the School-to-Prison Pipeline than arts education. For example, in the 2007-08 Los Angeles Unified School District spent $78 million a year on arts education compared to $51 million a year on school police. The district has since flipped priorities and now spends only $35 million a year on arts education compared to over $80 million a year on school police. We recently published a report that found 56 school districts in Southern California alone are illegally spending millions intended to support high-needs students on school police and security. School board officials in each of these districts would probably offer the same "we don't have enough money for the arts" while improperly using their Local Control and Accountability Plan funds, which should be used to further education goals, to criminalize students. A lawsuit we filed against LAUSD for improperly allocating these LCAP funds resulted in a $150 million settlement for 50 high-needs schools. Some are now providing additional arts education, but it should have never taken a lawsuit in the first place. These scenarios demonstrate why the challenges of limited school funding alone cannot fully justify the failure to deliver complete arts education to millions of students across California.

Art is culture and depriving students of opportunities to access it is a form of cultural genocide.
Amir Whitaker
An image of a brightly-costumed dancer is placed beside a young dancer just learning her first steps.
An image of a brightly-costumed dancer is placed beside a young dancer just learning her first steps. | Still from Artbound "Arts Education"

It's time to move beyond the narrative that arts are just a supplemental or extracurricular activity for students. Art is culture and depriving students of opportunities to access it is a form of cultural genocide. Art is related to free speech, so limits to the arts are limits to free speech. California students are guaranteed access under law and arts education is a civil right. Arts education is the reason why schools are still unequal. The fight for equal and complete arts education is part of the continued struggle for freedom and equality. A 2019 report from CreateCA found 94% of majority white schools had a music teacher compared to just 64% of majority Black schools. In L.A. county schools where half of the students are white, 72% had a full-time music teacher and 57% had a full-time visual art teacher. However, when it comes to schools that are at least half Latinx, only 36% had a full-time music teacher and 44% had a full-time visual arts teacher. Students with disabilities and English learners are also less likely to be enrolled in an arts class. As the chart below demonstrates, the inequalities widen depending on school type. Students in traditional high schools are over three times as likely to have an arts teacher than students who are incarcerated. Charter schools are 13% of California's schools, but 43% of schools offer no art. These inequalities and others can be explored at the school or district level at our Arts Justice data tool.

CA Arts Access by School Type
43% of California schools don't offer any arts education programs at all. | Arts Ed Data Project

Students have a right to their souls, and we must do better. Our students are not waiting, and have delivered advocacy letters and a petition with thousands of signatures demand arts, not arrests. They have launched their own creative journal to provide students with platform for expressions about social justice issues. The first issue, "Black Lives Matter, Black Arts Matter" was an inspiring tapestry of solidarity from students all across the state. Art can be the antidote to the School-to-Prison Pipeline and can help efforts decolonize the classroom. We must work to hold schools accountable to prioritize current funds for the arts, and this can be done with both Title 1 and LCAP funds. Advocates have also created toolkits to empower community members with advocacy tools. We have to take action to transform what our students are calling "creative dead zones" to inspire the next generation.

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