Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

Mike Lawson • Perspective • February 13, 2017

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Last year we were celebrating the end of “No Child Left Behind” and the new “ESSA” or Every Child Succeeds Act,” wherein the arts were, for the first time determined to be part of a well­-rounded curriculum. I went to Capitol Hill with educators, manufacturers, and members of NAMM to observe them asking their representatives to fully fund the bill, and to thank them for supporting it. It seemed like a hopeful couple of days walking around the House of Representatives. I left there thinking things were moving forward.

As I write this, some disturbing news is making its way across the country on a couple of fronts that directly impact music educators, those in the arts, and parents of those with disabilities. I’m troubled. The nominee, Betsy DeVos, has no experience administering anything anywhere on the scale of the Department of Education. She doesn’t support public education, champions charter schools and privatization through vouchers. She is likely to be rubber­-stamped into office.

We can discuss the merits of charter or private schools all day, I’ve seen some do great things, and others fail. That’s not really my point. We cannot turn an entire country into charter and private schools. We cannot privatize education. It is not a business. While one can apply common sense practices that parallel with business practices, at the end of the day, this is public service, not private enterprise. This isn’t about financial profitability.

Your jobs, your calling in life, are threatened by a mentality that thinks that you, your system, your administration, are failures, and can’t be “fixed.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called Betsy DeVos “the most ideological, anti­-public education nominee” since the position became a cabinet position. DeVos is quoted in the Washington Post stating that education is “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end.” DeVos is on fire with her passion to steer federal dollars away from traditional public schools. Think you’re having trouble getting funding for your music program now? Just wait.

The problem, as I see it, is that when you have people in charge of your program at the federal level, who believe passionately that you’re teaching in an “industry” and “closed market” as a “monopoly,” who are constantly trying to conflate private business practices with public services, you’re going to get people who want to prove the system is broken by breaking it some more.

When you add to this mentality DeVos not seeming to grasp why the IDEA had to be put into place to protect students with disabilities, at a federal level, and thinks that law should be scrapped and it left up to states, it paints for me, as the father of a daughter with autism, a very disturbing picture.

Couple all of this with plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and other programs that support our enormously rich cultural heritage while serving the people of this country fundamentally necessary music, arts and related educational programming and resources, and we’re looking at a new direction that could have a devastating impact on education, and music education in particular.

The arts are almost always the first thing politicians target. I was taken to task by a reader for mentioning this a few months ago. But straight out of the gate, almost day one, the announcement of eliminating the NEA, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the nomination of Betsy DeVos illustrated my point.

This is not and should not be about partisan politics. This is an American issue. This is now a battle for your students, your programs, your funding, your jobs, and our future. The voice of music teachers, either collectively through their unions, or individually through their own means, has never been more critical. It’s time for vigilance, speaking up, and making sure we don’t see funding slashed, programs cut, teaching positions eliminated, and music education downsized for another generation to come. As always, your comments are solicited.

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