At first, the numbers don't seem so bad.
Last school year, 101,374 students attending California schools had no access to arts instruction at school, according to data released Thursday by a statewide arts education collaborative. That's just 3 percent of students who had not a single arts course offered at their school.
But if you examine the data through the lens of the little-known part of the education code that references arts instruction, the picture is much more bleak.
While 97 percent of secondary students have access to some level of arts education (at least one course at school), only 26 percent have access to all four arts disciplines – music, theater, visual and dance – as required by state law.
California’s education code requires schools to give students access to music, theater, dance and visual art from first to twelfth grade. In first through sixth grade, schools are required to teach all four disciplines every year. And for older students, districts are required to at least offer the classes.
While 86 percent of schools provide at least one arts discipline, only 12 percent offer all four required by law.
But the law is not enforceable: many districts are unaware of it and there's no penalty for noncompliance.
"A lot of people will stand up and say we want all students to have access to participate in arts education, but they’re not really serious about it until we start counting," said Bob Morrison, chief executive officer of Quadrant Research, one of the research partners. "Because that’s the only way you’re going to know if you’re on your way to that goal or not."
The statewide arts coalition Create CA, in partnership with the California Department of Education and the nationwide Arts Education Data Project, released the findings Thursday along with a first-of-its-kind online database that slices arts instruction offerings by county, school district and individual school sites. The goal is to give school leaders, arts advocates and parents a clear picture of the state of arts education in California and hopefully increase access.
"We’ve known that having good data has been a challenge," said Craig Cheslog, chair elect of Create CA, the state's arts education coalition. "We knew that if we wanted to try to get better equity in arts education, the first step is knowing what students are receiving it and this gives us a baseline."
The source of the data is student enrollment in arts courses at specific school sites for grades 6 to 12 submitted to the state's data system for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years.
Elementary schools aren’t required to record courses in the same way, which is why those schools are not included. Community partnerships, teaching artist visits or after school programs not captured in course listings are not part of the data set.
Even if the picture isn't complete, arts educators said they're still excited to have something.
"It is being recognized that arts education is important enough to collect information [and] to properly access it," said Rory Pullens, head of the arts education branch for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "That in itself doesn't make the change, but it is certainly a beginning step to change."
LAUSD embarked on its own data project in 2015, when it surveyed schools about arts instruction to create a tool called the Arts Equity Index. Pullens looks forward to being able to put the district in the larger context of the county and the state.
"Without the data, we are just kind of randomly and blindingly selecting how we support schools," said Pullens. "Having concrete data allows us to ensure that the right schools are receiving the right resources to achieve the desired goals."
Other major findings from the new dataset include:
- The number of students who did not have access to any arts instruction actually declined 9.6 percent between 2014-2015 – an improvement.
- Statewide, 38 percent of students were enrolled in at least one arts discipline – 17 percent in visual art, 14 percent in music, 5 percent in arts, media and entertainment courses, 4 percent in theater and 2 percent in dance.
- Schools where 75 percent or more of the students were on free and reduced lunch, had the largest concentration of students without access arts education.
- The proportion of students without access to any arts courses was greater where the majority of students in the schools are African American or Latino.
One point that surprised researchers is that student enrollment in arts education during middle school was unusually low. Morrison says national trends typically show higher participation at the elementary levels, lower rates during middle school when arts move to elective status, and then even lower participation in high school. But in California, middle schools rates were lower than high school.
"The data has certainly bore out the fact that there is something that's creating a barrier for students to be able to be involved in the arts in middle school," said Morrison. "And I think that's an issue that requires some additional investigation into why is that happening in California."
This data project is part of a national effort to record and distribute arts education data with the goal of increasing access. California is the first in a cohort of four states. Data from North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin is forthcoming.
New Jersey paved the way for this data project when it commissioned a census of all of its schools in 2006. At the time, roughly 75,000 students didn't have any access. Over the course of five years, the state was able to eliminate student access issues by 90 percent. The state established new benchmarks and set deadlines for achieving the goals.
With a baseline now set in California, project organizers hope to spur similar change and to address inequities.
"There’s no judgment that’s being placed on the zero, the zero is a zero," said Morrison. "We don’t know what the circumstances are but it certainly provides an opportunity to have a conversation with people to determine how do we make it better? This process isn’t a wagging finger. It really is a helping hand."