March is Arts Education Month so it is fitting to point out that when school budgets get very tight, as they are in this current budget crisis, art and music education are among the early casualties.

In a very sad way, it’s understandable. These are the days of No Child Left Behind legislation, when every school and every classroom is rated according to how students achieve on standardized tests. You can scan those tests till you grow very weary and you will surely never see mention of a treble clef or a two-point perspective drawing technique. When tests measure reading, math and social studies, that is what is taught and that is where resources must be allocated.

What is much more difficult to understand is a political arena and a social context that makes that choice necessary in the first place. It is short-sighted. The arts are not frills — they are essential elements of a complete education, and often provide the very skills and motivation required for school success.

The arts represent a form of thinking that is both sensory and intellectual and is based on human imagination and judgment. They are a form of expression and communication that is essential to the human experience.

What’s more, the arts provide unique ways of reaching students who may not access knowledge as readily through language and mathematics alone.

The research is unequivocal. In a comprehensive report, the Education Commission of the States cited “a growing body of evidence that points to the importance of arts education in improving student achievement, affirming positive alternatives to troubled youth, and developing and building a workforce capable of competing in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.”

Among the most critical findings was the fact that learning through the arts can level the playing field for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In a national sample of 25,000 students, those with high levels of art instruction or experiences earned higher grades and scored better on standardized tests than those with little or no involvement in the arts, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Other studies have shown that in terms of reading and language development, certain forms of arts instruction enhance basic reading instruction aimed at helping children “break the phonetic code” that unlocks written language by associating letters, words and phrases with sounds, sentences and meanings. Also, in the area of math, certain music instruction develops spatial reasoning, which is fundamental to understanding and using mathematical ideas and concepts.

In terms of fundamental thinking skills, art experiences strengthen problem solving and creative thinking. Learning in the arts also nurtures motivation, and growth in self-confidence, self-control, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy and social tolerance.

What’s more, another researcher showed that an education rich in the arts and humanities develops skills that are increasingly crucial to the productivity and competitiveness of the nation’s workforce: the ability to think creatively, communicate effectively and work collaboratively, and to deal with ambiguity and complexity.

In Santa Barbara County, thanks to the power of partnerships, we have managed to keep the arts alive in our schools so far.

The Children’s Creative Project, started by my office after Proposition 13, uses an artist in residence approach and sends professionals in the visual and performing arts to more than 60 schools in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, reaching more than 30,000 students.

The I Madonnari Italian street painting festival, which has become a state and regional cultural event in its own right, is a primary funding source. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the district and PTA funding, illustrate what can be done in partnerships.

The state-of-the-art Marjorie Luke Theatre at Santa Barbara Junior High School is another excellent example of powerful partnerships, and the willingness of a community to strongly support creative efforts to providing ongoing arts experiences for our children. In the North County, Orcutt Union School District formed the Orcutt Children’s Art Foundation and is maintaining support for art programs, once funded by state grants, through the foundation. There are many other examples.

It is also important to underscore the link between careers and the arts.

New technologies for the arts, arts-related computer applications, and emerging arts-related careers are especially vital in California. One study of the arts found that spending on the nonprofit arts alone supports more than 115,000 full- and part-time jobs in the state. Entertainment products, such as movies, television shows, video games and music CDs, form one of the country’s high-test export categories.

Many young people find great joy in artistic expression. For some, it is an outlet and a source of inspiration. It helps them keep connected to their teachers and their schools.

The benefits of arts education can translate into real advantages, including closing the achievement gaps between groups of students, keeping young people in school who otherwise might drop out, and preparing students for the demands of college and an ever-changing workforce.

If we had a magic pill that would do all that, we would be dispensing it widely.

Arts education is essential. On behalf of all the children we represent and serve, we should support arts education with all our efforts and resources.  Otherwise we will have drained from our schools the humanity, the creativity, the discipline, and the joy that arts can provide to all our children.

Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County superintendent of schools.