Is Arts Education Dead in California's Public Schools?

Well, it depends on what you mean by "dead." As with most states, California took the ax to arts education in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. It seems to be a sacred truth across state capitals that when times are tough, arts education is an expendable luxury. Furthermore, these cuts came at a time when arts education funding was low to begin with, as states have been dialing back funding in an attempt to teach to standardized testing requirements.

But back to our question. Is arts education dead in California? "Not if we have anything to say about it," is the answer provided by the Herb Alpert Foundation. The foundation partnered with the California State Summer School for the Arts in Valencia to create the 2013 Herb Alpert Scholarships for Emerging Young Artists. Each year the foundation supports students in seven key disciplines: dance, music, theater, visual arts, creative writing, film, and animation. It backs up that support with a four-year commitment to help pay for tuition at the university level.

Traditionally, arts education grants can serve one of two purposes. The first helps to enrich students' education experience and create an interest in the arts that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. This approach serves the dual purpose of improving their capacity to learn. A recent study from the National Endowment showed that low-income students who took arts classes were more likely to graduate than those who did not. A second purpose, of course, is to prepare students for a career in the arts. The foundation's grant serves both purposes, but it is most concerned with the latter. According to its website, the Herb Alpert Foundation aims to support "those who choose the arts as the discipline of choice for their formal studies." And the details of the grant underscore this goal. Winning students will spend one month immersed in a "creative laboratory experiencing the daily life of a professional artist."

This approach is commendable. After all, many students don't fully appreciate the rigors and demands of being a professional artist until their early 20s. Furthermore, the foundation's approach is increasingly common across different fields — check out Sundance's recent fellowships that immerse students in the field of film criticism — and may point to the future of arts funding, whereby career-oriented immersion complements traditional student enrichment.

Ultimately, the big question is this: Will the state be restored to previous funding levels, or is this emerging model — ongoing partnerships with private philanthropic groups coupled with "immersion" programs — the "new normal," both in California and other states? We'll cross our fingers that funding is restored. Until then, however, look for philanthropists to fill the funding gaps and for arts organizations to embrace experiential, career-focused programs. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, "The reports on the death of arts funding in California have been greatly exaggerated."