Cuts Strike Sour Note

May 01, 1996 3 min read

In recent years, supporters of the music program in Roselle (Ill.) School District No. 12 have gotten used to disappointment. Since 1994, the local band boosters have rallied behind four separate referendums for property-tax increases in their 725-student K-8 district. Voters shot them down each time.

But when they lost the battle again in March, the defeat was especially agonizing. Without the proposed tax hike--50 cents per $100 of assessed property value--students in the Chicago suburb will have to pay about $30 a month to participate in band. “It just bothers me to have to fund what I consider a necessity,” says Robert Steffen, a parent in the district whose 5th grade son plays the saxophone. “It divides our community into haves and have-nots, and education is supposed to be made available for everybody.”

National advocates for music education say they have seen problems like those in Roselle all too often. Faced with shrinking budgets and a reluctance among residents to shoulder a heavier tax burden, many districts have been forced to set priorities and trim programs that they consider extras or frills. Often, music is among the first to go, especially at the elementary school level.

Finding ways to keep music programs off the chopping block has become a top priority for music teachers nationwide. “We don’t do that for math and science,” says Carolynn Lindeman, president-elect of the Reston, Va.-based Music Educators National Conference. “We don’t say that you have to pay $30 a month for your child to do science experiments at school.”

Budget reductions have led some districts to increase the number of students assigned to a single certified music specialist. The MENC recommends one teacher per 400 students at the elementary level. But the group points out that in many places the number of students seeing one music teacher is much higher than that. In Denver, for example, the ratio is closer to 1 to 700, and in New Orleans and Boston, it is roughly 1 to 800. The ratio in Los Angeles elementary schools is worse yet: about one certified music teacher per 4,500 students.

Don Dustin, director of performing arts for the 670,000-student Los Angeles district, says the system ensures that elementary school students receive adequate exposure to music by having its music teachers train individual classroom teachers. “In elementary schools,” he says, “we’d like to have a music teacher at every school with 600 or more students, but that’s kind of pie in the sky right now.”

The concerns about funding come at a time of unusual exposure for music teachers. This winter, moviegoers across the country enjoyed Mr. Holland’s Opus, a bittersweet tale of a high school music teacher’s dedication to students and music. The movie follows the 30-year career of the fictional Glenn Holland, from his reluctant decision to become a music teacher to his school’s decision to cut its music program altogether. A crucial philosophical question raised in the film is whether music should be a major part of the school curriculum.

Reactions to proposed cuts in music programs across the country have ranged from protest to philanthropy. In some communities, parents have formed private foundations to keep their programs going. Though offering an immediate solution that keeps their students playing in band and orchestra, it can leave parents covering progressively more of the cost each year. It also reinforces the notion that music is not an important part of the curriculum, says the MENC’s Lindeman, who is also a music professor at San Francisco State University. “It’s very much a Band-Aid approach.”

A few districts have actually won the kind of battles that music supporters in Roselle keep losing. Arts advocates in Carroll County, Md., carried out an extensive campaign this year after hearing that their school board was considering deep cuts to the elementary school’s music and art programs. Through advertisements, community meetings, and local newspaper columns, the Carroll County Alliance for Arts Education urged residents to support the music program at school board budget hearings. In February, the 25,000-student district’s board voted unanimously to save elementary music.

Music advocates at the state and national levels have begun training music teachers to better defend their programs and to organize campaigns like Carroll County’s. But the parents, students, and teachers in Roselle know that even a concerted campaign doesn’t guarantee winning the support of the voters in a community.

“They’re not looking at this as an investment in the children,” says Bob Wis, Roselle’s band director. “They’re looking at it as an increase in their taxes.”

--Jeff Archer

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Cuts Strike Sour Note