Music cuts strike inharmonious chord

By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service

LANSING – Budget struggles have forced many K-12 public school districts to make sacrifices over the last decade – and the steady disappearance of music programs has hit a sour note among some parents and educators.

You could even say it struck a discordant chord.

About 77 percent of teachers and 64 percent of parents rated music and arts education important or extremely important in a nationwide survey dubbed “Striking a Chord” andconducted by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation. The foundation supports research and develops public service programs to improve music participation.

“K-12 education includes exposure and experiences in the arts, and I think that when students don’t have access to that, it makes a huge impact on their present learning as well as their future career opportunity,” said Linda Wacyk, director of communications for the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

According to the national study, more than a third of students get one year of music education or less during their K-12 run. One in six have gotten no instruction at all.

In Michigan, the problem is just as severe – 32 percent of elementary schools offered less than one hour per week of arts and music instruction in 2012, according to a survey by Michigan Youth Arts. Youth Arts is an alliance of state education associations focused on improving arts programming.

These cuts are largely the result of shrinking school budgets, Wacyk said.

The recession that began in 2007 took a toll on all 50 states, but Michigan suffered earlier and longer than others – and so did its schools, she said.

“You combine that with the increasing legacy costs of our retirement system, and school districts have struggled with declining budgets for well over a decade,” Wacyk said.

That decline has left little to spare for arts programs. The Youth Arts survey also found 39 percent of Michigan high schools sought outside funding to keep programs going.

And while Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature have preached a stronger commitment to education, that hasn’t made up for past cuts, said David Randels, assistant director of government relations and pupil services for the Oakland Schools, an intermediate school district.

“It was a disingenuous way to say that everything’s okay, that we did a good job with funding schools,” he said.

While schools try to keep the impact of budget struggles out of the classroom, Randels said the practice has become increasingly difficult.

“They’re putting off replacing school buses, or putting off maintenance on some things – but you can only do that for so long,” he said. “It starts to affect other areas of the district.” And when cuts have to be made, programs like music – and art and physical education – are often the first to suffer.

Derek Anderson, an associate professor of education at Northern Michigan University, said those decisions often include factors beyond finances – testing plays a large part.

“If schools are judged on how well students do on math or language arts, then that’s where their resources get put,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of schools get rid of the arts programs not just because of money, but because the consequences of students not doing well in mathematics and language arts are risks of funding, and being on the at-risk or watched schools lists.”

He said state priorities are backwards.

“We’re chasing this theoretical global competitiveness ideal that we have to get our students ready for the global economy or some such thing, when it’s futile – we’ve succeeded in the global economy all along because of our creativity and innovation and the very things that arts teach,” he said.

Wacyk said schools indeed focus on core, tested subjects.

“As they try to protect core subjects, the arts take on less importance in some people’s minds,” she said.

But federal requirements consider arts a core subject.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that Congress just overhauled included arts as a core academic subject to create a well-rounded curriculum. However, while it provided testing standards for cores like math, science and reading, art and music were not tested.

He said all that legislators need to do to fix the problem is take a lesson from the pros.
“The very first thing the state needs to do is ask teachers: what do we need to do to improve education,” Anderson said. “Ask education professors, ask parents, the people in the trenches.”

Wacyk said a study of K-12 budget needs that has been approved by the Legislature for spring 2016 could serve as a needed catalyst.
The goal is to find out how much it costs to educate a student in Michigan.

“We can just hope that will give us some good information and that the legislators will act on it,” she said.