Sounds of budget ax falling

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Albert Margolis and his wife attended the final music program for their son's kindergarten class in May, they were shocked when a teacher stood up after the performance and announced that the music program was cut indefinitely.

"She was almost in tears, actually, that this had to happen," Mr. Margolis says. That Adam's school, Bathgate Elementary School in Mission Viejo in California's affluent Orange County, is a magnet school for the arts makes the cut even more startling.

"If I had known that this was coming, I would have done something sooner," he says.

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Bathgate's situation is not unique. All over the country, school districts are facing tight budgets and rigorous testing mandates that force them to cut non- academic programs. There is no way to count the number of music programs eliminated because each school district tackles its budget differently, but such whittling is rampant.

"It's a state-by-state and district-by-district story tied directly to school budgets and school quality," says Mary Luehrsen, director of public affairs and government relations for NAMM, the International Music Products Association. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see that where there's no quality of education, there's probably not a music program."

Budget woes have caused school districts to weigh the arts against desirable amenities such as smaller class sizes. In addition, state testing standards and the No Child Left Behind Act force school districts to focus time and resources on core subjects. "Music education programs get cut because decent people are trying to make tough decisions in hard times," says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education. "However, you can't cut music without cutting something important out of kids' lives."

Yet the problem is not as straightforward as state deficits or testing. "It's safe to say that the fiscal environment in which people provide education is a tighter, more difficult environment than it was 20 years ago," says John Augenblick, president of a consulting firm that works with state policymakers on school-funding issues. "Rather than seeing a school as serving a community purpose, it's much easier to view it as only serving particular people at a particular time in a particular place."

Mr. Augenblick cites a lack of cohesive community concern for education and a greater focus on individual interests as part of the problem, namely that people without children are not always interested in funding school programs. "It's getting much more difficult to convince people that music ... for some people is as important as tax relief for a lot of people."

Without music education, many fear a bleak future for children. "The real issue is that we will have a society that is impoverished, that doesn't have the cultural roots or the educational and discipline benefits that come from music education," says Mr. Blakeslee. "If people want ongoing music education programs in school, they have to let the policymakers know how much music education programs contribute to their kids every day of the school year. What's at stake is not just a school building, a teacher, a principal. It's the future of our kids."

To fight the cuts, parents are turning to SupportMusic.com, a national, grass-roots music- education coalition. The website was created to provide step-by-step instructions and a databank of facts for would-be advocates.

By checking a combination of boxes ranging from budget cuts to lack of facilities, advocates can target their school's problem and create a plan for arguing their points before administrators. "We're trying to build an initiative so that a parent can, in one or two steps, present real facts why a music program is not only good for their child but good for all children in the community," says Ms. Luehrsen.

Since its establishment, the website has had 1,000 to 1,500 visits each day, and a coalition of 20 national organizations have pledged to support the cause. "It is filling a gap," Luehrsen says.

SupportMusic.com hopes to use the educational and social importance of music education to convince more parents to become advocates. Organizers point to studies they say show that music benefits brain development and academic achievement.

A 1994 University of California, Irvine, study showed that preschoolers' spatial reasoning IQ rose 46 percent after eight months of keyboard lessons.

Music instruction has also been linked to higher scores in math, reading, history, geography, and the SATs.

Along with the academic and intellectual impact, music education has a significant social value, advocates say.

According to the Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest use of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.

"Children learn in a multisensory environment, and music, we know, is vital to that success," Luehrsen says.

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