FOCUS ON ISSUES & DECISIONMAKING: Candidate Surveys Make the Arts Matter

March 1, 2011

-- Sibyl O’Malley

In fall 2010, the California Alliance for Arts Education surveyed school board candidates running for office in November in over forty California school districts.

Candidates responded to four questions on policy issues and their personal experience with the arts. The results of the District Election Survey Project were promoted in early October to make arts education a vital part of pre-election public conversations.

The project is part of the California Alliance’s Local Advocacy Network initiative, whose aim is to build and empower a statewide network of arts education advocates. The Alliance provides leadership development, communications tools, technical assistance and strategic expertise to help local coalitions start and sustain successful advocacy efforts. These groups were critical to the success of the candidate surveys project.

PROJECT IMPACTS

• Increased Awareness

A candidate survey is a time-based, newsworthy way to raise awareness about the benefits of and issues facing the delivery of arts education in our public schools among both candidates and voters. It offers a welcome opportunity to deepen public understanding outside the constraints of a crisis.

Supportive candidates have a platform to demonstrate their understanding of and commitment to arts education, and other candidates may become aware, for the first time, of active support for the arts in their districts. Even candidates in uncontested races should be included for the opportunity to educate them and build a relationship.

Voters used survey results to identify candidates who support arts education.

"The Survey helped me choose who I felt was the best candidate for the job. I was able to clearly compare the candidates through their answers to specific questions. I could tell who had a background in the arts, who had passion for the arts, and who would be a great representative to keep the arts alive in the schools. A few candidates chose not to respond to the survey. That was not a wise choice on their part. I shared the site with my friends and colleagues."
- Reina Bolles, Artistic Director, Chula Vista Centennial Concert

• Builds Relationships with Elected Officials

The survey jump-started the ongoing process of building relationships with local education leaders.

“We thought it was important to invite the candidates to reflect on how the arts had personally impacted their lives as children or parents. Knowing that a candidate played percussion in a school marching band, or enjoys attending the Pacific Symphony gives us a place to start a relationship with them.”
- Pat Wayne, Director of Programs and Arts Education, Arts Orange County

Post-election, advocates and candidates may build on relationships begun during this process.

“I think it's critical that these groups -- teachers, parents and community arts organizations -- have the opportunity to work together to shape a shared vision, or agenda, for Escondido's children. I'm very honored to be one of your "follow-up team members", and will continue to be a cheerleader and advocate for arts education opportunities for all students in all of our schools.
- Linda Woods, School Board Member, Escondido Unified Elementary District

• Creates Accountability

The survey required candidates to go on record about policy issues affecting arts education in public schools and gave voters a way to hold them accountable: another 3,000 people have viewed the survey post-election.

“When elected I will continue to engage staff, parents and the community in an effort to implement the district's strategic plan. I will support the Arts Facilitators position that helps with the implementation of the curriculum.”
- Shirley A. Carey, School Board Member, Huntington Beach City School District (survey response excerpt)

• Leverages Collective Power

The survey allowed supporters and organizations a way to harness their collective power and to strengthen relationships. Our partnership with Arts Orange County and the Fourth District PTA, as well as our Local Advocacy Network, made it possible to offer and promote the survey in over 40 districts in the project’s first outing.

Pre-election, over 4,000 people consulted our surveys: in small district races, where voter participation is historically low and margins between candidates are often only a few hundred votes, this is significant. And, in participating districts, survey results positively correlated with the election of supportive candidates.

“In the twenty-nine districts we surveyed in Orange County, we saw a clear advantage for districts that participated in the Local Advocacy Network. These had a better rate of participation among candidates (70%, as opposed to 59%) and even more striking, in these Local Advocacy Network districts, 88% of candidates who were elected had participated in the survey, as opposed to 53% in districts that were not a part of the Local Advocacy Network. This shows us that the advocacy work we’ve done has momentum, and going forward, the impact of the arts education candidate survey will continue to grow.”
- Pat Wayne, Director of Programs and Education for Arts Orange County and the Orange County Organizer for the Local Advocacy Network.

Step-by-Step Planning For Your Candidates Survey Project

We invite you to contact the Alliance for help in planning and publishing a survey in your local community.

1. Gather candidate information

Generally, candidates declare their intention to run for office about three months before the election. This information is a matter of public record, usually available online. Consult your state’s Secretary of State website to identify what office handles elections in your community. Determine who will be running and gather their contact information. In Orange County, the Registrar of Voters provided a printed list of all candidates with addresses and emails for a small charge.

2. Set up online survey

We set up our questionnaire on Survey Monkey, where a premium account ($20/month) allowed us to download responses to an Excel spreadsheet, reducing administrative time. You may also have candidates email their responses.

3. Invite candidates

Use our sample letter (link below) to invite candidates to participate. Set a firm deadline to ensure enough time to gather and publish all answers. Build in follow-up time to remind candidates to participate and complete their surveys by the deadline. Remember: Your goal is to get information posted in time for voters to use it to make voting decisions.

4. Publish Results

With a premium account from Survey Monkey, you may easily and inexpensively publish survey results (though the format is a bit cumbersome). With additional staff time and little cost, you may create a document and post it to your website or blog. Working with a private contractor, Zumwinkle.com, the Alliance built a tool to display questions, answers and photos for each candidate by election. Our regional peer organization, Arts for LA, who originated this idea, published results using an open source tool from Drupal.

5. Promotion

The success of our project was due in large part to partnerships with grassroots advocates in local districts. Members of our Local Advocacy Network, organizations like Arts Orange County and the PTA have the credibility and contacts to promote the survey via newsletters, social networks, Eblasts or at local community meetings. These locales drove the majority of the visitors to the survey results.

The Election and Beyond

The good and bad news is that the work doesn’t end with the election. We continue to work with local advocates to strengthen relationships with candidates, to build on their increased visibility and to use results to hold elected officials accountable in the upcoming budgeting process.

And, come next election, we’ll be back with another survey!

-- Sibyl O’Malley is a playwright, teaching artist and the communications manager for the California Alliance for Arts Education. You may reach her at sibyl@artsed411.org.

Links:

California Alliance for Arts Education www.artsed411.org
Sample Letter www.artsed411.org/advocate/docs/CandidatesCoverLetterandQuestions.doc
Survey results http://artsed411.org/surveys/surveylist.aspx
Local Advocacy Network http://artsed411.org/advocate/lan.aspx
Arts Orange County www.artsoc.org
Fourth District PTA www.fourthdistrictpta.org
Arts for LA www.artsforla.org
California Secretary of State website www.sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_d.htm
Zumwinkle.com http://zumwinkle.com/#/Our%20Team