It’s hard to imagine anyone anywhere who doesn’t think, all things being equal, that we should be spending a lot more money educating students in music and the arts.

Not only does arts education open up a world of culture, creativity, beauty and imagination, but repeated studies have shown, more prosaically, that it leads to improvements in students’ critical thinking, more empathy and less intolerance, and in stronger memory and attention. It is not an add-on for amateurs. At school, this leads to reduced disciplinary infractions, improved attendance, and higher college aspirations, among other things.

Yet only 22% of California public schools — barely one in five — have a full-time art or music teacher (compared to 72% in New York City), advocates say.

The simple truth, as one school superintendent put it, is that “in hard times … the first things to go are the arts programs.” They are easier to cut than reading, math or science, and the money doesn’t necessarily re-materialize when the crisis ends. Across the country, arts education has been in decline for three decades, says the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This is unconscious.

And that’s why Californians should vote yes on Proposition 28, a measure on the November ballot to provide dedicated funding for arts and music education in the state budget.

If passed, Proposition 28 would require the state to provide additional arts funding each year equal to 1% of the total constitutionally required state and local funding that public schools received the previous year. What will she say? Well, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that in the first year, that would come to just under $1 billion.

The money can be spent on dance, theatre, music, photography or art programs – or in less traditional fields such as animation, digital music, screenwriting or beat making. It is up to local school officials.

The proposal allocates additional funding to schools that serve large numbers of low-income students.

No more than 1% of the additional money can be spent on administration. Eighty percent must be used to hire staff. The rest would be for training, supplies and other program costs.

Oh, and there are no tax increases. The money would come from the general fund of the state budget.

Who can oppose such a measure? No one bothered to offer formal arguments in opposition to the California secretary of state. Proposed by former LA Unified School District Trustee. (and former Los Angeles Times publisher) Austin Beutner, Proposition 28 is supported by a wide range of groups, including the LAUSD Board of Education, the California Teachers Assn., the state PTA and the Business Federation of LA County.

The argument against Proposition 28 is that it is “ballot box budgeting.”

That’s what it’s called when voters make a state budget decision directly at the polls, bypassing the Legislature through a ballot measure and tying lawmakers’ hands for the future.

The concern is that ballot box budgeting leaves lawmakers unable to set their priorities. What happens, for example, if five years from now, less money is needed for arts education (say because school enrollment drops) and more is needed to address an increase in homelessness or devastating wildfires? With limited resources, will lawmakers have the flexibility they need to respond?

I fully agree that ballot box budgeting is not an ideal practice, from a fiscal point of view. The smartest system is to have careful legislators and state officials who balance needs with resources and place their budget priorities in context.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, to say the least. And art and music classes — woefully underfunded — are too important to the education of the state’s 6 million K-12 public school students to be extinguished by a theoretical argument about ballot box budgeting.

I simply cannot see holding the future of California’s students hostage to an abstract principle about responsible budget practices.

It’s not like the budgeting process is clean, rational, and holy anyway. It’s a messy and sometimes ugly process of lobbying by interest groups and political horse-trading.

Furthermore, I do not believe that we will soon feel that California schools are overfunded. Nor do I believe that a billion dollars will break the bank.

The bottom line is that in recent years California has deemed sufficient public school funding at a level of roughly $17,000 per pupil, compared to the $30,000 per pupil spent in equally high-cost New York. This has left many public schools struggling and students with fewer opportunities.

Proposition 28 would help turn that around while providing California’s children with a critical component of the education they need and deserve.

Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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