On June 30, Austin Beutner stepped down after three years of serving as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Four months later, he hasn’t been able to put public education behind him.
Beutner and a broad coalition of educators, entrepreneurs and arts and music leaders announced their intent to place a measure on the November 2022 California ballot that would generate up to $800 million a year in new funding for arts and music education in public schools across the state.
Beutner told Los Angeles that this would be new money separate from the Prop 98 allocations that now fund public education. It would not be a new tax.
“With record funding at the state level, a record surplus, it will come from the additional revenues already coming into the state,” Beutner said in an interview over the weekend.
The measure would specify that 100 percent of the funds go to arts education, with 80 percent allocated to hiring teachers and aides. The remainder would cover training, supplies, material and other needs. Politicians would be prohibited from accessing any of the newly dedicated money, and there would be transparency provisions, with school districts required to submit annual reports showing that the money is spent as intended.
No details are available yet on specifically how much various districts would receive, but Los Angeles Unified, with approximately 500,000 K-12 students, generally gets about 8-9 percent of state education dollars. The arts and music allocation could be slightly higher, as the measure calls for directing additional money to schools that serve large numbers of low-income students. It is estimated that 80 percent of LAUSD families live at or below the poverty line.
During his time atop the district, Beutner railed at what he said was the chronic underfunding of public schools. He repeatedly pointed out that the LAUSD spent approximately $17,000 per student (though that is up to $24,000 for the current academic year). By comparison, he regularly noted, New York City public schools spent about $30,000 per student each year.
The new money would cover an array of artistic elements. In addition to traditional music, visual arts and performing arts, funds would pay for instruction in computer graphics, animation, coding and costume design.
The measure has the backing of a number of prominent figures from the arts and entertainment sector, including musician and producer will.i.am, L.A. County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan and actress Issa Rae.
“This ballot measure will help define the promise of the next generation of storytellers by ensuring all California students get the high-quality arts and music education they deserve,” Rae said in a release announcing the measure. “It will especially benefit students from communities of color, who often experience a lack of access and equity in access to arts and music education.”
The measure will be filed with the state today, and signature gathering will take place from January through April. Beutner said about 660,000 signatures will be required to qualify for the ballot, but that the team will aim for at least 1 million names to ensure that enough are valid.
Beutner said that signature gatherers will be at places beyond the traditional supermarket.
“We can collect at schools. We can collect at performing arts venues and anywhere people in the arts, music and creative industry express themselves,” he said. “So we have a unique advantage in how we can preach to the converted gathering signatures.”
If the measure makes the ballot, it would need approval from a majority of voters to pass. The aim for the November ballot, rather than the June primary, anticipates a heavy turnout from reliably liberal voters. The gubernatorial election is expected to draw people to the polls, as is an election for still new U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla. Additionally, every Congressional seat will be up for grabs, and there is a Los Angeles mayoral contest.
Those behind the measure touted a poll of likely November 2022 voters in which 81 percent of respondents stated their support for increasing art and music education without raising taxes.
It is a different if not a surprising tack for the civic-minded Beutner, a Michigan native who graduated from Dartmouth and began his career in finance, where he made partner at the powerhouse firm Blackstone when he was just 29. He has held numerous disparate jobs in Los Angeles in the last decade, including being a top deputy to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and later serving for about a year as publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Additionally, before becoming superintendent of LAUSD, he founded the nonprofit Vision to Learn, which provides free eyeglasses to low-income children. It has handed out approximately 150,000 pairs of glasses to kids in California, and operates in 12 additional states.
Beutner, who briefly ran for mayor in 2013, has been discussed as a mayoral candidate in 2022. He would not comment when asked if he plans to run.
Beutner has also played a role in arts leadership, spending five years as the board chair of the California Institute of the Arts. During the pandemic, he used his connections to augment arts education, including establishing a partnership with guitar maker Fender that provided free guitars and ukuleles, along with lessons, for thousands of LAUSD students. It has continued into the current school year.
Another partnership, announced shortly before Beutner stepped down as superintendent, was an LAUSD tie with music and business luminaries Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre to open a new high school in South Los Angeles. Both are advocating for the ballot measure.
“I’m all in on giving kids more access to music and arts education because creativity saved my life. I want to do that for every kid in California,” said Dr. Dre.
Long before he envisioned a ballot proposal, Beutner learned firsthand how the arts can help a student. He recalled being a fifth grader who, because his family frequently moved, found himself sitting alone on his first day at his fourth school.
“A teacher said, join our music class,” he recalled, and he was handed a cello. “The first thing I found was a group of friends. I found a sense of belonging. Cello became bass. Bass became guitar. I found a sense of agency, a way to express myself.”
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