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Beyond the Headlines: LA’s Arts Advocacy Success

Advocates rallied outside of the LAUSD board meeting.

Many of you have seen the headlines about the proposed total elimination of the elementary arts program in our country’s second largest school district—Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). And many of you probably saw the star-studded headlines about the postponement of that decision during the February 14 school board meeting.

Well, here is the rest of that story that you might not know…

At the meeting, all seven board members and Superintendent John Deasy expressed their commitment to LAUSD’s nationally recognized arts education program. The postponement allows advocates and district leaders to develop alternative strategies in the face of the district’s $550 million budget shortfall.

Arts for LA, the regional arts and arts education advocacy group for Los Angeles County, is leading the campaign to oppose the elimination, and has mobilized over 2,400 stakeholders to voice support for arts education to the LAUSD School Board.

Arts education was not alone on the chopping block. Several other essential programs, including adult and early childhood education, were also slated for elimination under one of three potential budget scenarios for 2012/2013.

Arts for LA connected with groups advocating on behalf of these two programs, shared information, and stood in solidarity with other advocates. Avoiding a “cut this, not that” approach only strengthened our position.

The order of business for the February 14 meeting was strategic—immediately following the budget discussion was a proposal to pursue a local parcel tax on the fall ballot.

The proposed elimination of elementary arts education and other “non-core” programs drew outrage that the school board hopes to channel into a coordinated effort to increase LAUSD revenues.

The proposed parcel tax would cost local landowners $298/year, less than a dollar per day, and is projected to raise $220 million annually for LAUSD.

We learned about the proposal on February 2 and that evening we launched an online action center where constituents could urge the LAUSD School Board and Superintendent to support arts education. The suggested text was firm but respectful, focusing on arts education as core curriculum in California and an integral component of a complete 21st century education.

Letters began pouring in, and by the next evening, over 1,000 people had sent emails through the action center.

We then sent an e-mail to those who live within the school district (about 2,000 out of our database of 20,000), and news of the campaign spread quickly via Facebook and Twitter. Artists and organizations shared information and encouraged people to take action. Media outlets wrote about the proposal and directed concerned citizens to the action center. By the February 14 meeting, e-mails had topped 2,450.

Debbie Allen testified at the board meeting.

In addition to the hundreds of parents, teachers, and community members who descended on LAUSD headquarters, two award-winning artists attended to speak in support of arts education.

Although speaker request cards ran out quickly, celebrity brings its own access and both were invited by the board to testify.

Award-winning choreographer Debbie Allen spoke eloquently about the power of arts education, and former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum called Superintendent Deasy “the real rock star, because we can save the world together.”

Having Allen and Sorum round out the speakers was an unplanned and downright lucky piece of political theater. With the celebrity testimony fresh in their minds, each board member spoke about his or her personal commitment to arts education.

The celebrities also attracted the attention of the huge local media market, the second largest in the nation. LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times, and other news outlets immediately ran Sorum and Allen’s testimony, and local stations led their evening news with teasers like “Why was Guns N’ Roses at today’s LAUSD meeting?”.

Arts for LA is now pursuing a grasstops strategy, securing small-group meetings with board members to discuss strategies. Cuts will happen—even in the best-case scenario, there is a significant deficit for the upcoming school year.

However, retaining infrastructure will allow the district to gradually return the program to its pre-2008 levels. There is still dedicated state-level funding, including the $9 million LAUSD receives annually through California’s Arts & Music Block Grant for arts education.

Star power may have helped draw attention to the School Board’s decision, but thousands of local advocates moved the lever before the meeting.

Grassroots advocacy, strategic, respectful messaging, and offering to be a part of the solution can make a major difference, especially in today’s tenuous economic climate.

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