November 15 — 2:46 pm, 2010

Shift of funds endangers instrumental music

This week’s guest blog post is from Peter Schneider, a public interest lawyer and parent of a 10th grader at Masterman and a Central graduate.

The School District has been investigating proposals for “weighted student funding” that would change the way schools receive their funding from the District. As a public school parent whose children have benefited greatly from music in the schools, I am very concerned that proposed changes to the instrumental music program, shifting some funding decisions from the central office to individual schools in the name of increasing equity, would damage the program irreparably.

Fortunately, the Weighted Student Funding Planning Committee recently voted to maintain centralized funding for the program, but the decision is not final and could still be overridden.

The instrumental music program remains a highlight of the District’s educational offerings, despite past budget cuts. The program provides interested students with weekly instrumental instruction, starting in the 3rd grade. The program also supports school bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, and other groups. Most students are provided with school-owned instruments.

At present, instrumental music is offered at 189 schools. While some schools have full-time band or orchestra teachers, most instrumental teachers are “itinerants” who serve several schools every week. Currently, there are 76 itinerants. The District’s Office of Comprehensive Arts Education coordinates their schedules, provides support, including some funds for instruments, instrument repairs and supplies, and organizes District-wide events including the All City High School Music Festival at the Kimmel Center, the All City Middle School Music Festival, and the High School Jazz Fest.

Itinerants are assigned to individual schools according to a formula that provides a specialized teacher to a school for one half-day per week for every 15 students at the school who are interested in instruction. It also matters whether the principal allows students to be released from class for lessons, whether the school has enough instruments, whether there is appropriate classroom and storage space, and whether a school can ensure the safety of instruments.

The current funding formula has been criticized as inequitable because teachers are not allocated in equal numbers to the different schools and many schools do not have instrumental music programs at all. But removing the funding from the central office and allowing the schools to use the funds as they choose could well destroy the program entirely.

Decentralized funding formulas would take music funding away from schools that have built successful programs while not giving enough to other schools to establish new ones.

Principals would have an incentive to take funds from instrumental music instruction and use them for other purposes. Instrumental teachers, who teach small groups of students at a time, could be replaced with a general music teacher who could teach an entire class and thus provide relief for a classroom teacher’s prep period. Or they could be replaced by supplemental math or literacy teachers – a real risk when school success is measured by math and language tests, but not by musical proficiency.

Without dedicated funding, instrumental music could well go the way of school libraries – it could disappear at many schools. This would be devastating. For many kids, school without instrumental music, like school without art or sports, would be a numbing experience.

The success of the program requires a critical mass of teachers in order to maintain a critical mass of students. Unless kids start playing in elementary and middle school—where the programs are staffed exclusively by itinerants—there will be no supply of students experienced enough to play in the high school orchestras and bands. In the high schools, the itinerants encourage new players to begin and provide essential instruction for those students who cannot afford private lessons.

Without sufficient itinerants, many students would lose access to a teacher with the skills to teach them their particular instrument. Schools would find it increasingly impossible to maintain a band or orchestra with a full component of players.

The itinerants are skilled, dedicated professionals. Margaret Lineman, my son’s itinerant French horn teacher, holds “horn club” meetings at her home, where kids gather to enjoy camaraderie (and work on their music). Last summer, Bill Scheible, another brass itinerant, arranged for a brass quintet composed of kids from the high schools where he teaches – both neighborhood and magnet – to perform with his Ocean City Pops Orchestra, and to get paid for it – my son’s first “professional” music job!

A more formal program brings brass players from high schools throughout the city to after-school workshops at the Curtis Institute coached by District brass teachers and Curtis students, supplemented by master classes with Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, culminating in a performance in the Curtis concert hall. These are the kinds of things that make one proud of a public school system that offers them.

Turning over budget and teacher allocation responsibilities to individual principals could jeopardize the success of the entire instrumental music program. Once dismantled, with skilled teachers gone and instruments and supplies dispersed, the program might never be rebuilt. The point of equity initiatives should be to build things up where they are lacking, not to knock them down to a lowest common denominator. As a starting point, the existing program with centralized funding and administration must be preserved.

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