A New Wave of Cuts in Music Programs

Judy Nelson | April 2010

    With the warmth of spring, band and orchestra directors everywhere are rehearsing their final concerts of the school year with students practicing solos and polishing their music. Unfortunately, this may be the last concert performance, ever, in many schools.
    School districts are now announcing their budgets for the 2010-11 year, and the news has been particularly harsh with cuts proposed to music programs throughout the country. In March Mary Luehrsen, arts advocate and public affairs representative for the National Association of Music Mer­chants, said that in eight years she has never before experienced so many requests for help. John Benham, an advocate for music programs for the last 29 years, reported that since January he has received some 30 calls for help from districts that are planning extensive budget cuts.
    The schools in Fairfax County Virginia are just one example of severe budget cuts, with an anticipated $176 million being taken out of the fiscal year 2011 budget. At the end of September the superintendent re­leased a list of budget cuts, then several weeks later he released a lengthier list of anticipated cuts. Music was on that list with cuts for band and orchestra students in grades four, five, and six, saving $7.1 million. The entire music program currently in­cludes over 25,000 students, or 85% of those in the district. The numbers are staggering.

Help for Music Teachers
    The National Association of Music Merchants will provide help to music teachers, music booster groups, and parents of music students when their programs are on the chopping block. “The budget process in public schools is a public process; it doesn’t happen behind closed doors,” Luehrsen says.  “Budgets are posted on web sites. Budgets and budget hearings at school board meetings are open to the public, so there is an opportunity for anyone concerned about their music program to get the information about what is happening. The sooner a group of concerned folks has that information, the sooner they can react to it positively.
    “NAMM can connect the interested parties – a teacher, a school administrator, a group of parents,” she continues. “We might put them together on a conference call, send them each other’s e-mail addresses, or develop a peer-to-peer network.” She suggests teachers use the materials on the web site www.SupportMusic.com to start.
    “We are moving through April and May with a lot of concerns. It has never been more important for local arts advocates to be attending school board meetings and remaining calm, clear-headed advocates for a complete education that includes music. We approach this from the perspective of what the research is telling us about the value of benefits of music learning in the lives of children, and how they align with state and national goals that we have for children around graduating from schools.”

Winning the Battle

    Benham says it takes several components to win the battle in a budget crisis, beginning with the power parents have in the cause of saving music programs. “When I visit a school, I never speak to the board or to the administration. I speak to parents because it is their right and responsibility to save their own programs. Usually a person who lives outside a school district’s boundaries has no voice at a board meeting.
“We also have to unify the music profession by saying, ‘We are saving music education; we are not just saving band programs, orchestra programs, general music, or choral programs.’ Music teachers become part of the fault themselves because one side suggests a cut in the other.”
    Music teachers also need statistical analysis to save their programs from budget cuts, which is what Benham does. When Fairfax County’s proposed budget in­cluded a cut of $7.1 million for the music program, Benham’s statistics showed the county would end up spending $8 million because students not signing up for music would need to be in different classes.

The Teachers’ Perspective
    A retired Fairfax County orchestra director, Mary Wagner says “the most important rule for teachers is to speak from the perspective that the school is losing a program, not that teachers are losing their jobs. People are interested in what will happen to the students, especially here in Fairfax County because 25,000 students is such a large number. Yes, 146 teachers may lose their jobs with the budget cut – and young teachers may be scared to death – but the community isn’t particularly interested. There is a lot of tension with the teachers because of the unknown.”
    Parents in Fairfax County have formed the Fairfax Arts Coalition for Education, with groups attending budget hearings, speaking out, and signing a petition to keep music in the schools; to date that petition has 11,780 signatures. Students have helped to protest music cuts by standing next to empty music cases, filling the school’s halls as members of the school board walk by to attend budget hearings.
    “We have been getting positive comments from members of the school board,” says Wagner, “and we are lobbying the board of supervisors as well as members of the Virginia general assembly. The school board presents its budget to the board of supervisors on April 6; next the board of supervisors sets its final budget on April 20, and then it goes back to the school board.”
    As these negotiations are played out in Fairfax County and in school districts across the country, the value and benefits of music learning in the lives of children continue to be at stake. We will keep you posted.

Editor’s Note: Band and orchestra directors who are interested in sharing their school budget problems and successes with The Instru­men­talist should send them to editor@theinstrumentalist.com. We will keep contri­butors’ names anonymous.