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California: A State in Crisis

Mike Lawson • Archives • August 5, 2009

California is facing a tremendous fiscal crisis. With over 72 billion dollars in debt and a budget shortfall of more than 25 billion dollars, lawmakers have been scrambling to find ways to balance the state’s troubled financial books. Unfortunately, any conceivable solution will undoubtedly take its toll on schools and other educational programs. Recent estimates have stated that as much as nine billion dollars may be slashed from the state’s education budget, leaving teachers in all disciplines struggling to cope.

Against that dire and depressing backdrop, SBO recently caught up with Jeff Jenkins, a high school band director and president of the California Music Educators Association, who is one of the people leading the charge to protect California’s music programs from the financial storm.

School Band & Orchestra: What is really happening with school music programs in California?
Jeff Jenkins: Music education in California has been in jeopardy for several years now. The first onslaught came from the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. Now, because of California’s huge budget deficit and our struggling economy, schools are experiencing more cuts in available revenues to local school districts. These cuts have the potential to impact music education for years to come.

The following is an excerpt from my column in our association newsletter, The CMEA Magazine. It explains the impact of No Child Left Behind on music education:

When our political leaders speak about educational issues, there are implications for music and equitable access, for all students, to a quality music education. Clearly the pursuit of test scores under No Child Left Behind has had a detrimental effect on music education. We have seen all arts classes become marginalized as administrators are pressured to get every student up to the state level of proficiency, particularly in English and mathematics. As a result, many students, especially in lower socio-economic schools, are slotted into additional hours of English and mathematics.

Policy makers and the media proclaim that the 3 R’s must be mastered, and if that needs to happen, at the expense of the arts, so be it.

In secondary school, students who are low-performing on standardized tests are given additional English and math classes, many of which are taught by inexperienced teachers. These support classes sometimes do not count toward high school graduation. These same students have no room in their schedule for an elective. Since many of these students are English language learners and ethnic minorities, these large groups are denied access to the arts.

Now, with budget cuts, we are seeing a further erosion of music classes. We are seeing many districts using one music teacher to cover multiple school sites. Secondary music teachers are teaching other subjects, with mixed results in terms of student achievement and negative results in terms of energy left to devote to growing the music program.

SBO: How are your state’s premier band and orchestra programs holding up?
JJ: It is difficult to find a band or orchestra program that has not been affected. However, the affluent schools continue to have a larger pool of students to draw into the arts and thus many are able to offer a strong music program. These same schools are not seeing the severe cutbacks in music funding since affluent programs can generate their own funds to cover transportation, equipment, and additional staff.

However, even strong programs know that they are in for some lean years in the near future. For example, in Poway, a district north of San Diego that has pockets of higher socio-economic areas, the elementary program that used to include instrumental music lessons for all fourth-grade students is gone and the fifth-grade program is largely funded by donations. Even with schools that have strong music programs, under-performing students are often not allowed to participate since, as noted before, they are given additional math and English classes rather than electives.

SBO: Are things really that bad across the board?
JJ: In most school districts, administrators and school boards have attempted to show restraint when dealing with arts programs. The truth is that California’s budget cuts are deep and far-reaching. Given the current fiscal situation, most districts have little choice but to make cuts and the arts are seeing a large portion of these cuts. To quote D. L. Johnson, past president of CMEA and current director of North Monterey County High School Band, “The damage to school music programs in the Monterey Bay area is so bad the even such institutions as the Monterey Jazz Festival Education Program, one of the top jazz education programs in the country, will have to cut back its clinician program, not due to lack of funds, but lack of formally participating schools. Several school jazz programs have been cut for next year.”

SBO: What is CMEA’s role in all of this?
JJ: The purpose of CMEA is to provide leadership for music educators. We do this with advocacy through lobbying work with CAAE (California Alliance of Arts Educators). CMEA provides professional development by organizing an outstanding Annual Conference that brings all music disciplines and grades together to learn, grow, and share ideas about teaching. Sharing these ideas about teaching helps us pass on our love of music to our students. CMEA brings national services to the local level. CMEA speaks for music education in this state.

CMEA works with other music associations for the mutual benefit of our music students. There are many music professional organizations in California. The important thing is that we must work together to provide a quality music experience for every student in California.

SBO: So what is CMEA doing to keep music programs afloat? Are there any new initiatives you are hoping to put into place?
JJ: In terms of specific actions, CMEA has written letters in support of music education to numerous school boards across the state. In these letters we cite current research detailing the benefits of music education. In a few cases we have been able to save a music program from the chopping block. Regrettably, we have not always been successful.

In addition, we have published lists of national advocacy resources and encouraged our members to become involved in local, state, and national initiatives to improve access to the arts.

CMEA is aware of the fact that, in education, trends change like the swinging of a pendulum. We are working on positioning ourselves to rebuild music when the pendulum swings back. By surveying our current membership, we are learning more about how we can meet their needs. We hope to be able to offer conference sessions that provide practical strategies for building a music program along with innovative suggestions for using technology to enhance our programs and class offerings.

SBO: What lessons have you learned as CMEA president that might be relevant to music educators across the country?
JJ: No Child Left Behind has had dire consequences for music education. Access to the arts is no longer equitable. Music organizations such as CMEA and MENC can no longer sit on the sidelines and remain neutral where politics are concerned. We must become advocates for equitable arts education by meeting with our local, state, and national representatives. We need to speak with a unified voice throughout our state, and indeed, throughout the nation.

Two key points must be discussed as we engage in the current national dialogue around national standards: 1) the arts must be treated as a core subject, not just labeled as such; and 2) the bar for state testing cannot be set so high that only a select few students are able to participate in elective classes.

We need the national spotlight on the difficulties music education is facing. California teachers cannot fight this battle alone. We need national voices to join us in raising the alarm about the negative effect of No Child Left Behind. Right now, in California, our state leaders are so focused on budget woes that there is very little room or motivation for them to consider the plight of music.

Because we seek this national voice, we are deeply grateful to MENC for their campaign to bring a quality arts education to all students through their National Petition for Music Education. We look forward to joining other campaigns that seek to bring a quality music program back to all public schools.

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