From the Summer 2012 issue California Schools Magazine, published by the California School Boards Association | http://bit.ly/PS2AEc
June 28, 2012 :: Joe Landon—executive director of the California Alliance for Arts Education—learned the hard way that being passionate about the importance of the arts isn’t enough to transform an accomplished artist into an effective advocate in the ongoing campaign to preserve visual and performing arts programs in California’s cash-strapped public school system. Although he’d spent more than two decades as a successful playwright and screenwriter in San Francisco and Los Angeles—no mean feat in that ultra-competitive world—Landon was in for a rude awakening when he took a job in 2002 as speech writer to then-Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg.
“What I learned working in the Capitol was that the skills set I had, had almost no relevance to what was going on in the system of how things get done.” Landon recalls ruefully. In other words: Caring deeply about a cause was just the beginning of any effective advocacy campaign.
After Hertzberg was termed out of office, Landon went to work as senior consultant for Assembly Member Wilma Chan, specializing in early childhood education issues. In 2006, he left the Capitol to become policy director for the California Alliance for Arts Education and was promoted to the organization’s top job last fall.
The Alliance, which was established 40 years ago by arts educators, operates on a budget of $600,000 that’s funded mainly by corporate and foundation grants. Its primary focus is on public advocacy and on building effective community partnerships in local school districts. The Alliance organizes constituencies to support arts programs in public schools and helps district and county office governing boards identify effective strategies for saving and even expanding these essential services in an extremely challenging fiscal climate.
Under his leadership, the Alliance has built a statewide network of local partnerships that bring together community leaders, parents, teachers, artists and arts advocates, elected officials and school boards to support the arts in more than 30 California school districts. It’s an advocacy network that relies on good working relationships with governing boards. In a recent conversation with California Schools magazine, Landon talked about how he’s bringing his experience as an artist and public policy advocate to his work with the Alliance.
How did you become so passionate about the arts?
When I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the late ‘sixties, I started writing plays. I took to it immediately. It gave me a way to reorganize my experience in a way that made sense to me. It enabled me to articulate my own perspective. It taught me about discipline and about focus. But most important to me, I learned about what it was like to create something out of nothing. And that completely changed the direction of my life.
When did you make the shift from being an artist to advocating for the arts?
The reality was that after 15 years of making a living as a professional TV writer, I was increasingly disconnected from what had brought me to L.A. to write, and that was that inner calling. It felt important to make the distinction between what I was doing to make a living and what I was doing to fulfill myself as a writer. It was time to go. After I moved to Northern California, I taught theater and music at a private school in Marin County for about five years and then got a job working at the Capitol.
What happened when you arrived in Sacramento?
I realized pretty early on that no matter how wonderful your feelings or your issue might be, you had to have three things to make a difference: First, you had to be at the table. Secondly, you had to have partnerships with other organizations that could also exert influence; and finally, you had to have advocates behind you to back you up so that when you said you wanted something, you weren’t just speaking for yourself—you could demonstrate your political clout.
Tell me about how you got involved with the Alliance for Arts Education and what lessons you brought with you from your experience in Sacramento.
We sensed that decisions about education were increasingly being made at the local level and so, as policy director, one of my first responsibilities was to create grassroots organizing in local districts. I would go into districts that were cutting arts education and I would meet people who were precisely as committed to the arts as I was, but who had absolutely no sense of how politics works or how to effectively advocate for your cause.
Can you give me an example of your work with one district?
We went into Saddleback Valley Unified in Orange County, aware that [the district] had announced their intention to cut its elementary arts program, and we convened a breakfast. We invited local school board members, the mayor, the superintendent, and other leaders from around the community to come. The gathering provided unity and momentum to what had previously been disparate efforts to preserve arts education in the schools. What happened eventually was that the school board backed away from those cuts. Since then we’ve been building out on that system throughout the state. It’s not enough to love the arts, you have to understand how the politics work.
Where do local school boards fit in?
We’ve found that school board members are often deeply sympathetic to the issue and are struggling with difficult budgetary choices they’re being forced to make. It helps to have constituents who back the arts, who will say the arts are critical in our schools. That way local school board members can say: “I am responding to the voice of my constituents who say clearly that this is a priority.” And who can also make the case why it makes a difference.
You had a really interesting piece on the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s TOP-Ed blog earlier this year about using Title I funds—which are targeted toward raising English and math skills among disadvantaged students—to support research-based arts instruction that’s integrated into the core curriculum. Can you describe your message?
I’m convinced arts education strategies can be an asset in achieving Title I program goals. A recent study from the National Endowment of the Arts, “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” reports that low-income students who have access to arts education achieve higher GPA and test scores, are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than their peers without access to the arts.
Unfortunately, there’s been some confusion around Title I funding and whether or not it’s appropriate to use arts education as a strategy to accomplish those goals. What we were hearing from districts was that they’d been told they could not use Title I funds for arts education strategies. I felt what we needed was clarification from our state superintendent of public instruction on the issue, so we pushed for that and eventually got a letter from Deb Sigman, California’s deputy superintendent of public education.
What did the letter say?
The letter acknowledged that if it’s a program that has demonstrated success in raising test scores that it’s possible to use those funds, provided the school district fulfill other requirements related to Title I. Some districts and county offices saw this as good news and said, “We’ve got those strategies and we’re ready to go.’”
But other districts are hesitant?
In the absence of clear guidance on this issue, there’s a concern at both the state and local level. Yes, Arne Duncan says it’s OK to use Title I in this way, which he had, and before him Rod Paige said the same thing, but the people underneath him, they’re reluctant to stick their neck out because who knows how long Arne Duncan is going to be there?” Districts feel the same reluctance because they’re concerned that the state might object to broadening the scope of Title I strategies.
What you’re talking about has less to do with arts education for its own benefit and more about effective educational strategies in general.
What I am talking about is arts integration, which is not to say that I don’t also believe in core arts programs where arts are being delivered for their own intrinsic value. [The arts] can deepen learning and improve outcomes across the curriculum, including literacy and numeracy.
Can we back up and get a basic primer about The California Alliance for Arts Education and how it came into being?
The Alliance started as a small volunteer effort about 40 years ago, and over the years has grown to be a robust organization representing a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Today our Policy Council is composed of representatives from parent, business, arts, labor and education organizations. We have built a network of over 30 local advocacy coalitions statewide. And we have an active, engaged group of “e-advocates” across the state who take part in action alerts and other advocacy efforts. We provide policy expertise and counsel and make recommendations at the statewide level, sponsoring legislation like SB 789 [by Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles], which would establish an Index of Creativity and Innovation, and taking positions in support of or opposition to relevant bills.
What do the local coalitions consist of?
They’re composed of arts organization leaders, educators, parents, business leaders who have some sympathy or interest in arts, practitioners—community leaders, it might be clergy. They work together on a grassroots level to advocate for arts education in local schools.
Then what happens?
It depends on the specific community. Each one has different strengths and is facing unique challenges. In some districts, our advocates have helped develop district arts plans, in others they have built partnerships with local business or provided advocacy training to parents. The general parameters are [that] we encourage these local alliances to have points of contact with the school board: in other words, school board members should be aware that there is a coalition in their community that is committed to this issue. We also encourage advocates to reach out to the media, to tell the story in various ways of how arts education is making a difference in their communities. We ask them to build partnerships with organizations like Rotary, PTA, other parent organizations wherever possible, and to be a part of our statewide network so that when we have a bill that we support or oppose they are available to be part of a statewide effort.
Why would the Rotary Club care about arts integration or arts education?
For the workers in the 21 century, it’s not adequate to have workers who have been trained to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. You need workers with the capacity to solve problems in a way that didn’t used to be the model of what a worker does. So it’s actually an economic investment consideration, which is that if you are going to have businesses in California and you want to have an effective work force, you need kids coming out of school with the capacity to think creatively, to provide innovation to what they’re doing, to have the ability to present themselves, to be disciplined, self-motivated, collaborative; and we consider all these skills to be the domain of the arts. Traditionally the reason business gets into education is because down the line, it’s going to make a difference to their bottom line. If they don’t have workers who are capable of doing the job, their businesses can’t succeed.
You mentioned Saddleback Valley USD. Can you talk about some other districts where alliance coalitions are really working?
Advocates in the South Bay and in San Diego have become a force to be reckoned with. They have built a large following on social media that helped activate support for the arts throughout San Diego County. When there’s a town hall or school board meeting, they put the call out and advocates are not only there, but they are prepared. They approach school board members as partners. They have a clear, consistent message, and they bring solutions rather than complaints.
County offices have really been taking leadership in many areas, haven’t they?
We’ve invested a lot of time and energy, partnering with Jim Thomas and the Orange County Department of Education, but there’s a robust system of support in Alameda, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, too, with long-term, substantial investments in arts education. Our advocacy work is most effective when it teams with the commitment of a forward-thinking district or county office.
Do you give strategic guidance about where to look for money? Your work on Title I was one way of helping districts find financial support.
Because we’re at the statewide level and we’re small, we’re less likely to know what money might be available locally. But I would say that if you get an alliance going, a lot of times what grows out of that is an exchange of information. It’s one of the side benefits of these efforts: when you have people in a room together with shared interests sometimes those kinds of connections occur.
Is there a typical person you contact within districts to oversee construction of these local alliances—an artist, or a professional grassroots organizer?
Often it’s a parent. In Orange County there have been a lot of PTA people who had an interest in the arts and became our local organizers. We’ve also established a partnership with the California Arts Council and their new executive director, Craig Watson. They’re a state-funded, statewide entity, with local arts councils at the county level, who share our commitment to promote arts education in the schools… In the coming year we’ll be partnering in the establishment of new alliances in Santa Cruz, Fresno, Placer, Mendocino and Amador counties. At the county level, we’re also working with [the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association] to leverage opportunities with county offices.
Can you talk about the impact of the economic downturn on arts education and about the emphasis on standardized testing and reading and math that accompanied the federal No Child Left Behind Act?
Every time there’s a cut, arts programs are perceived as the nonessential courses because they’re not at the heart of what’s being specifically tested for. And so the attrition has been considerable. You really see a system that’s no longer capable of providing comprehensive arts education because districts can’t continue to hire teachers who can provide those services. The narrowing of the curriculum under No Child Left Behind has exposed what happens when you don’t provide an education that really engages kids. Bubble testing doesn’t measure what kids learn or need to know, and it encourages teaching to the test. It’s a vicious cycle in which kids aren’t being given the opportunity to cultivate skills they’re going to need in order to be successful. The way we learn is deeply personal. That’s why the arts matter so much—because they call upon that personal response in every person.
My organization lauds the accomplishments of the tremendously talented students in the arts, but that’s not really what we’re about. We’re about ensuring that every student has the opportunity to both receive and to express the arts, in their own unique way. Doing that will benefit them throughout their lives as well as in school, and it will give them a place in which they are actually connected to their education.
Can I just add one more thing?
The longer I go and the more I fight to stop this cut or to preserve that program, the more I’m convinced that arts need to be recognized at the core of education, not an add-on, an after-thought, a reward or an embellishment. The arts live at the core of our vision of what education is. And that’s really what I want to be talking about. How do we get to that?
Carol Brydolf ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a staff writer for California Schools.