Junior Ruth Delgado plays the violin during orchestra class at Richmond High School in Richmond on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)
It’s been clear to Richmond High School junior Angelee Montances that when it comes to arts and music education, all things are not created equal in Richmond.
“Communities like mine, Richmond High, where it's predominantly brown kids, we don't get the same opportunity as in like Hercules, which is, you know, predominantly Asian kids and white kids,” she said.
Montances is a senior who plays viola in the Richmond High orchestra. The East Bay public high school, along with Kennedy High, is located in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, and is made up of 1,511 students, of whom 85.4% are Latino.
“And, you know, it also sucks because I feel like parents, students and teachers have tried here in Richmond High and Kennedy High to get the funding that they have (at Hercules High),” Montances said. “But we don't have the money, you know.”
Many Richmond High families, including that of Montances, consider themselves working class.
“It’s really something you think about and not many people say, but it's also a race thing. It's a socioeconomic class thing, and it's just an issue,” said Montances.
California education law calls for all public schools to offer comprehensive arts education, but in reality, very few of them do. This November, voters will decide whether or not to guarantee arts funding in public schools, including charters.
Proposition 28 would roughly double the amount of funding California gives schools for arts and music education, and it would send 30% of that money to schools serving students from lower-income families. Voters would also be locking in that funding stream for the future.
The measure would require public schools to spend 80% of the money on hiring full-time arts and music teachers, which could double the number of arts and music teachers across the state.
In 2016, voters in Berkeley, a wealthier part of the Bay Area, raised taxes to boost music education by passing a parcel tax that raises $2 million annually to pay for music education for all public school kids starting in third grade.
But just 11 miles north, in Richmond, many public elementary school principals have to plead with local community arts organizations to partner with them. Coming out of the pandemic, that cry became even louder, according to Andrea Landin, director of school and neighborhood partnerships at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.
“I had so many principals call me or email me saying that, ‘My students have been sitting in front of a screen for a year and a half. They need to sing, they need to move, they need to express themselves,’” Landin said.
East Bay Center for the Performing Arts pays artists who don’t have a teaching credential about $45 an hour to help teach art and music in as many WCCUSD public schools requesting help as they can. However, the center has a hard time competing with tuition-based arts organizations in other parts of the Bay Area, which can pay those same artists between $80 and $100 an hour.
Landin said there is never enough money or artists to meet the demand, which means lots of kids in the Richmond area are missing out.
“Sometimes kids can't really name exactly what's going on emotionally or mentally, but once they start to move or sing or play an instrument or get on stage and pretend to be someone else, then there's so much healing that goes on, so much realization and growth,” Landin explained.
If approved by voters, Proposition 28 would roughly double funding for the arts in schools. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates it would raise between $800 million and $1 billion annually.
By some estimates, that would translate to about $166 per student across the state. A school like Richmond High would have about $250,000 more a year.
“That would change everything,” said Andrew Wilke, director of the Richmond High Music Department. Wilke teaches seven periods, runs the marching band and the orchestra, and oversees all the instruments, scheduling and transportation.
“I’m at rock-bottom emotionally,” Wilke said. “Not only am I trying to hold all these classes together, I’m trying to find money, I’m trying to support the kids, which is the actual real job we all have.”
Currently, Richmond High’s music programs can only serve 140 students. Wilke said more money would mean hiring another music teacher, and the opportunities the school could create for students wouldn’t be limited by how much time he can commit to it. Wilke noted that, with guaranteed funding, there wouldn’t be a struggle for supplies, or a limit to performances the orchestra and marching band could do for lack of transportation funds. And Richmond High could hire specialized instrument coaches for students like Montances.
Of the approximately $1 billion raised by Proposition 28 each school year, 30% would go to schools serving economically disadvantaged students.
Landin thinks filling these credentialed art and music teaching positions could be a challenge for schools. “I was like, ‘This is beautiful. Where are they going to find all the teachers?,’” she said.
Landin says during COVID, many artists left the Bay Area for less expensive places. And spoken-word artist and poet Jazz Monique Hudson, who has taught on contract in Oakland schools, has seen arts programs scaled back or eliminated when schools make budget cuts. Hudson had to get full-time employment with the district attorney’s office as a victim advocate to be able to support her family.
“Youth Speaks is very prominent in San Francisco,” Hudson explained, referring to the leading nonprofit presenter of youth poetry slams, spoken-word performance and youth-development programs. “However, they have not been able to maintain and sustain their partnerships with Oakland schools due to funding. I was set to teach at Elmhurst Middle School this semester but could not teach in the art program because there wasn't enough funding for the spoken-word program.”
If voters approved Proposition 28, it would lock in funding for the arts, making them less susceptible to budget cuts in tough times.
That, in fact, is one reason some critics have come out against the measure: They object to so-called “ballot box budgeting” because it locks in funding that can’t be undone, for example, when a recession hits.
Marguerite Roza, who studies education finance at Georgetown University, points out that California schools have more money now than they’ve had in years. The current state budget, which passed in June, increased school spending by 13% over last year. Some of that funding could theoretically go to arts education.
Roza says, if passed, Proposition 28 would require the state and schools to come up with new ways of tracking personnel — since school districts will have to specifically show how they spent their new arts funds — which can be complicated and take time to implement. Furthermore, she adds, the creation of a separate “categorical” would add extra rules to different pots of funds, which could mean that districts end up spending more time on compliance than on trying to deliver what their students need.
“This push for separate arts ed money would be a move back to the old model, where legislators dictate how districts carve up their budgets,” Roza said, referring to the period before the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in 2016, which fundamentally changed how all local education agencies (LEAs) in the state are funded.
At Peres Elementary School in Richmond, Principal Christy Chen says she currently has to constantly hustle community partnerships to bring art into the schools.
This fall, thanks to East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, her fourth graders are learning about African rhythms. But Chen says right now her kids only get a half hour of art or music a week.
“That would be a dream to get a music teacher, because at the end of the day it gets the kids excited,” Chen said.
At Richmond High, music leader Andrew Wilke says he doesn’t need much. Even another $20,000 would help his kids.
“I tell the kids, the arts and music — these are languages. It's not a tactile language like English, where we can say 'desk,' 'floor,' 'sky.' It's an emotional language where we can express ourselves. I think folks who haven't had an opportunity to really dive into that don't fully understand it, which makes it difficult to get the importance across,” he said.
This story was made possible as part of The California Newsroom – a collaboration of California’s public radio stations, NPR and CalMatters.
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