Dr. Dre, Lil Baby Turn Out to Support Prop 28 Arts Education Ballot Measure

Cityside Column: The effort would dedicate nearly $1 billion annually from the state budget to arts and music education for every K-12 public school student in California
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An early October gathering at Santa Monica High School was a true case of “one of these things is not like the others.” A row of seats was arrayed across a stage and occupying three of them were rap and business icon Dr. Dre, music industry legend Jimmy Iovine, and Atlanta rapper Lil Baby.

Seated in the fourth was Austin Beutner. Now, Beutner is certainly accomplished, having made a fortune in private finance before becoming a civic leader, and he spent three years as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But this was a situation with a trio of worldwide music stalwarts, and a guy whose performance career ended with fifth-grade cello recitals. The students, capturing the event on their phones and churning out TikTok videos, didn’t give a lick about Beutner.

The gathering was not as unlikely as it may sound. Rather, it was entirely strategic. Beutner, who navigated the school district through the throes of COVID-19, including orchestrating a program that provided 140 million free meals to students and their families, has turned his focus to a different cause—he is the force behind Proposition 28, an effort to dedicate nearly $1 billion annually from the state budget to arts and music education for every K-12 public school student in California.

Lil Baby, Iovine and Dr. Dre came together to advocate for Prop 28. They are not the only ones touting it—dozens of figures, including Will.i.am, Issa Rae, Katy Perry and John Lithgow have all promoted the effort that would enhance arts education. According to Prop 28 proponents, only one in five California public schools now has a full-time art or music program.

Beutner is relying on the connection the stars have with their fans as mail-in ballots arrive at homes and Election Day approaches.

“We have some very authentic messengers who communicate in a very different way than the bought ads that compete for your time during the local news block up and down the state,” Beutner told me by phone on Tuesday morning. “You want to reach young voters, they’re all on TikTok. They’re not watching the local news at 5 o’clock. They’re not reading the newspaper.”

Prop 28, which comes straight outta Los Angeles, is one of the more intriguing items on the ballot. This is not just because it stands in stark contrast to some of the more spurious statewide propositions, which have been met with harsh skepticism from those in the know. An “election scorecard” from Sacramento campaign strategists shows that every prominent California newspaper has editorialized against Propositions 26 and 27 (regarding gambling) and Proposition 29 (which is about dialysis). When it comes to Prop 28, the tally is 15-3 urging a yes vote. Outlets editorializing in favor include The Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, and the Orange County Register.

The benefits of arts education are both obvious and proven academically. Advocates point out that an art or music class can be what inspires a student simply to step foot on campus. Beutner, who has been working on the ballot effort for more than a year, remarked, “We didn’t need to talk about it. We didn’t need yet another study of why arts and music matter for children.”

If approved by a majority of voters, Prop 28 would pay for music and arts education in every California public school, with additional funds directed to those serving greater numbers of low-income students. Fields covered would include traditional music and visual and performing arts classes, as well as instruction in graphic design, film and video production. Much of the money would pay for new teachers and aides.

The exact amount allocated would change annually, representing 1% of the state’s Prop 98 money that already funds public education. It would not pull from that pool and it would not bring about a new tax. Instead, money would come from the general fund. Proponents say California’s budget surplus makes this a reliable source of income; detractors say they worry that it would lock up needed money if the economy tanks.

The funds would become available in the academic year starting in 2023. While precise figures depend on factors such as enrollment numbers, Beutner estimates that approximately $100 million would flow to L.A. area schools in the first year.

On a messaging front, it sounds like a slam dunk. But the practical and political sides of the effort are even more intriguing. Beutner stresses that the goal has been to keep the language short and simple, so as not to confuse voters who just read the title and the ballot summary. Efforts were made to win the support of entities ranging from the powerful California Teachers Association to SAG-AFTRA. Beutner even sees a victory in the official state voter guide.

“The left side of the page has the arguments why you should vote yes. We wrote those,” he said. “The right side of the page is literally blank, but for the words, ‘No argument against Proposition 28 was submitted.’ That’s a unicorn.”

I checked and he’s right. Not the unicorn aspect, but the lack of formal opposition.

Nothing is ever assured, and past elections have produced copious surprises. Still, Beutner, whose resume includes founding the nonprofit Vision 2 Learn, which provides free eyeglasses to low-income students, says he believes the team behind Prop 28 has something that could make local education better—and if it passes, he says it could be a model for efforts in other states.

“It’s time everybody in our community understands what’s at stake and the importance of public education. That’s happening with this initiative,” he said. “It’s happening because arts and music matter.”