A $900 Million Proposition for Arts and Music Education in Public Schools Is Coming to the November Ballot

Cityside Column: Former LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner loads up on big-name backers, including Katy Perry and Dr. Dre, in the effort to fill a niche

With the June primary election in the rearview mirror, attention now turns to the November ballot. For one politically connected civic leader, the matter of whether Karen Bass or Rick Caruso becomes mayor of Los Angeles is of secondary importance.

That figure is former LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, and more critical to him is the fate of a ballot initiative he is shepherding. The proposition, which would dedicate up to $900 million a year in state funding to arts and music education in public schools, recently qualified for the November ballot.

“We collected more than a million signatures throughout the state of California, in effectively record time,” Beutner said in a recent phone call

The team needed to surpass the qualification threshold of 623,212 valid signatures. With that achieved, the proposition next month will be assigned a ballot number. The campaign to get voters to say yes will kick into high gear post-Labor Day.

The Arts and Music in Public Schools measure would be separate from state Proposition 98 money that currently funds public schools across California. The campaign operates on the premise that most students don’t receive adequate arts education; according to initiative documents, 90 percent of elementary schools do not provide a high-quality course of study across arts disciplines.

There would be no new taxes, and Beutner says that the cash would come from what are currently overflowing state coffers. Every public school would receive some of the proceeds, with additional dollars directed to schools that serve children in low-income communities who lack arts and music education.

The bulk of the money would go to hiring teachers and aides, and in addition to traditional visual and performing arts, there would be instruction in computer graphics, animation and coding.

While the mission is to bolster arts education, Beutner expects there would be additional benefits.

“We know access to arts and music in schools improves attendance. For many kids it gives them a reason to go to school,” he said. “We know it will better connect children throughout the state of California with better career prospects.”

This is a passion project for Beutner, who made a fortune in investment banking, but has spent the past decade in a series of disparate but high-profile roles across the city, including first deputy mayor to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and founder of the nonprofit Vision to Learn, which provides free eyeglasses to low-income public school children. His stint as superintendent lasted three years, and he navigated the 500,000-student LAUSD through the depths of the pandemic, arranging everything from free computers and Internet access for any child who needed it, to the groundbreaking coronavirus testing program that screened every student and staff member each week.

Beutner stepped down from the job on June 30, 2021, but he doesn’t idle well. A few months after the gig ended, he began rallying supporters to get behind the effort to enhance arts and music education for 6 million public school students in the state. He quickly got celebrity buy-in—talk with Beutner about the effort and he’ll mention advocates including Katy Perry, Dr. Dre, Issa Rae, Quincy Jones, will.i.am and Universal Music Group Chairman and CEO Sir Lucian Grainge.

Equally crucial is the support from a panoply of business and educational power players. The L.A. County Business Federation has endorsed the measure, as have the California Teachers Association and the California State PTA.

“Extra funding for arts education in all California public schools will help bridge educational systemic inequities and promote academic success to a higher extent,” said Carol Green, president of the California State PTA.

There is an expectation that, once the ramp-up period begins, the standard campaign tactic of mailers and TV commercials will be complemented by the range and connections of celebrity and entertainment industry players.

“Compared to a traditional campaign we have a lot of supporters who have loud voices and they can speak directly, through their social media, through their appearances in concerts, and the other times they gather with the flock,” Beutner said.

While there may be a natural audience and prominent supporters, getting a state measure passed is never easy. A request for funds prompts a knee-jerk no in certain voters, and any measure is susceptible to being overshadowed by the clutter of measures and propositions that qualify for the California ballot. Opposition could come from fiscal hawks who argue that setting aside money sounds okay when budgets are flush, but ask what will happen when the economy tanks and resources are more scarce.

While the vote is more than four months away, Beutner is confident the proposition can surpass the 50 percent required for passage. He points to polling showing that an overwhelming majority of voters support arts and music funding. He notes how when the subject comes up, people wax on about their own experiences playing an instrument or being involved in visual or performing arts during their school years.

He thinks this will pay off at the ballot box.

“The good news is, we don’t have to explain why it’s a good thing,” Beutner said. “We just have to make people know that the opportunity is out there for them to vote yes and make sure it happens.”

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