The Day the Music Died

Music Education, a staple of the Los Angeles Unified School District curriculum that inspired tens of thousands of students to pursue a career in the performing arts, died yesterday after a long battle with financial anemia. It was 159 years old.

It’s the beginning of an obituary that almost had to be written this year after a major budget scare from the LAUSD school board. The proposal would have completely eliminated funding for K–8th grade music and arts programs district-wide, and would have left the nation’s second-largest school district without any such educational opportunities when it was scheduled to take effect on July 1st.

Thanks to major advocacy efforts from concerned parents, teachers, and organizations like Arts for LA—which gathered more than 5,000 letters of protest to school board members—this radical budget proposal was defeated, and Music Education staved off death until the next round of budget cuts.

Just because there’s money for one more year of Music Education in LAUSD schools doesn’t mean Music Education isn’t dead already. It’s the level of funding that seems to indicate the commitment from the district just simply isn’t there. In March 2011, LAUSD laid off 50% of the music teachers on the current payroll.

Just two school years ago (2009–2010) there were 160 elementary school music teachers in the district and every single school had at least one day of music classes a week. This school year the number of elementary school music teachers is 39 and less than half of district schools even have a music teacher at all.

The total number of elementary and secondary music teachers for the entire LA Unified School district this year is 203. For a current K–12 enrollment of 664,233, that’s one teacher per 3,272 students. Not exactly the ideal class size.

What precious little Music Education that remains in the district has been overwhelmingly confined to specialty schools, magnates, or schools in the city’s most privileged neighborhoods. Meaning, oftentimes the students who most need to learn about the transformative power of the arts can’t.

Dozens of independent non-profit organizations have valiantly stepped in to fill the void left by the LA Unified School District. For example, the LA Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles programs, located in two different under-served areas of town, and inspired by Gustavo Dudamel and the phenomenally successful El Sistema network of youth orchestras in Dudamel’s native Venezuela. But YOLA officials are quick to point out they serve about 1,000 students. As stated above, LAUSD enrollment is inching toward 700,000.

Perhaps it’s a bit morbid to write and publish an obituary while the patient is still on life-support. Perhaps there is yet a miracle cure to be discovered in a research laboratory somewhere. But right now, the prognosis is not good.

This post originally appeared on the music education website LyricalLA. Read writer Leslie Velez’s opposing viewpoint on the survival tactics of music education in Los Angeles here, and share your own thoughts on how you think music education is doing in the comment section below.

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