By James Daugherty
As music educators celebrate the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we look forward to increased music education opportunities for our nation’s students. There is also a wonderful opportunity with the passage of this new federal education legislation to repair the damage from the “test-to-measure” mindset of previous education policies. After years of cuts to music and arts experiences for students at all levels, the possibility exists to return to educating the whole child. ESSA specifically name music as one element of a well-rounded education.
Music educators have long known the value that music brings to the cultivation of a well-rounded, lifelong learner, and it appears policymakers now agree with us. No longer must we justify that what we teach is important. Simply put, it is—and federal law now verifies that. Although mindsets have changed, funding has not, and this is the next challenge we face in the music and arts education community.
In our district, we face the impossible challenge of trying to offer well-rounded music or arts experiences with teams of elementary teachers working themselves nonstop, serving two or more schools in increments of 40 minutes or fewer per day. Serving as a team, the music, art, and physical education teachers are often called the “enrichment” or the “enhancement” teachers, signifying to some the lack of importance of these teachers and their subjects. Titles such as these have been commonly used due to years of testing and focus on the “core” subjects. This extreme focus on a few subjects in previous legislation has driven principals and superintendents to focus financial resources on the employment of teachers for federally legislated subjects because they were measured—and that is what mattered.
It is rare to find a school leader who would negate the need for music and the arts; however, most simply can’t figure out how to find the funding to employ more teachers. On June 7, the Senate Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education Subcommittee approved its FY17 funding bill, which included a $300 million funding level for the Student Success and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grants, a new block grant authorized in Title IV, Part A, of ESSA. Despite being the third largest authorized program within ESSA, this proposed funding level is dismal, as it represents less than one-fourth of its $1.65 billion authorized level under ESSA.
Underfunding SSAE will have a damaging effect on the progress we have made in restoring the place of music education in the lives of students. Without a proper funding allocation, the flexibility that Congress had intended states and local districts to have in funding areas such as educational technology, safe and healthy students, and a well-rounded education for all students is in danger. In order to make meaningful investments in crucial areas of need, such as school music programs, full funding for SSAE must be in place, and we must advocate for that to no end. It is time to stop forcing school districts at the local level to make trade-off decisions between testing programs and finally allow educators the flexibility to fully create and implement a well-rounded course of study that includes music and the arts for all students at all grade levels in all schools, regardless of their zip code.
Because SSAE may be used, in part, to improve access to music education, music education will in turn support student success through the promotion of constructive student engagement, problem solving, and conflict resolution. Creating tomorrow’s leaders shouldn’t be funded meagerly or in part. As states are now designing their own ESSA implementation plans, we must urge our congressional leaders to support fully funding Title IV, Part A, of ESSA at its authorized $1.65 billion level. Otherwise, we risk regressing into a cycle of never supporting what we say we value. What’s more, we face the risk of students who are not completely well-rounded and are denied opportunities they rightfully, and now by law, deserve.
ASCD is asking educators to take a couple of minutes and tell federal lawmakers to fund the programs and goals they voted for in ESSA. Click here to access ASCD’s action alert portal to find a prewritten e-mail to send to your federal lawmakers.
James Daugherty is an instructional program specialist for fine arts and distance learning for Davidson County Schools, North Carolina.