Music Educator Voices: In Unison for Education Funding

Not only are students in regular academic classes affected by the lack of funding for textbooks and personnel; music students have fewer resources and limited opportunities for participation. Let’s take a look at the crisis as it is now unfolding in the state of Oklahoma.

Written By

Kathy L. Scherler

There is an education funding crisis occurring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky at this time. Not only are students in regular academic classes affected by the lack of funding for textbooks and personnel; music students have fewer resources and limited opportunities for participation. Let’s take a look at the crisis as it is now unfolding in the state of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has long had a reputation for entrepreneurship and “can do” attitudes. This harkens back to the beginning of statehood, as the pioneers of this resource-rich region took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862. If a settler could stay on the land they claimed for five years and improve it, they would then own it. These people were not afraid of a challenge. They saw opportunity in investing in the land, communities, cities, churches, and schools.

Fast forward to April 2018. While the state of Oklahoma has had a heritage of strong-willed citizens, the mindset of growth and investment in community education has fallen on the legislative back burner for the last decade. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states that Oklahoma has had the largest decrease in per pupil funding since 2008. School funding per child is about $1000 dollars less than ten years ago.

It seems that this is due to several state budget factors, including the decrease in oil and gas prices as well as cuts made to education after the 2008 recession that have not been restored or have been ignored. This negative growth mindset has permeated the current lack of state education funding and has exacerbated an education crisis. Oklahoma teachers, like their peers in West Virginia and Kentucky are now standing up for the respect and remuneration that they deserve.

On April 2, 2018, Oklahoma teachers walked out of their classrooms and headed for the capitol building in Oklahoma City. They walked, drove carpools, and rode in buses paid for by community dollars. In Tulsa, the state’s second largest city, teachers are marching the 110 miles to the state capitol as well to demonstrate their solidarity and the seriousness of this issue.

What kind of an impact is this education crisis having on music classrooms in the state? In talking with several teachers in the trenches, they shared their frustration over the lack of funds and are distressed at seeing the negative impact on student learning. Music educators shared that they can no longer “just work harder” to make up for oversized classes and the lack of resources. Stephanie Abell, the choral director at Norman High School spoke of the consequences of diminishing school funds. “The students feel slighted,” Abell acknowledged. “They know the teachers are doing the best they can, but they know it is inequitable. When I talk to my seniors, they tell me that their large class sizes are overwhelming. They need more time from their teachers, but when the teacher has 160 students that’s pretty hard. My freshman son is in the ninth grade and in three advanced classes and one regular class. He only has one textbook for AP Human Geography. The other classes don’t have textbooks because there is no money for them. The teacher walkout is coming at a crucial time for music educators, as this is during our state music competition. I talked to my 59-member chorale and told them that the walkout may prevent us from going this year.  Nobody balked at it, and the students said this is more important than any contest.”

“This is more important than any contest.”

Oversized classrooms are affecting student learning in music theory classes. Cameron Burton is in his fourth year as high school band director in Choctaw. Burton describes that in his jazz theory class, the more students that he has, the less he can differentiate instruction for students. “That becomes a big issue. In music theory, lessons are based on analytical and critical thinking skills. If you are not able to assist students one on one, as is the norm in smaller classes, the students in crowded classrooms are directly affected by not developing their musical understanding of key concepts.”

Classroom overcrowding is seen in the elementary schools as well. Melanie Drummond, an elementary music specialist from Sallisaw, Oklahoma wrote this comment in a letter to Oklahoma legislators, “In order to allow our homeroom teachers planning time, I teach two classrooms of students in rotating shifts all day. The reason our PE teacher and I have this schedule is because we don’t have adequate funding to add other ‘elective’ options for our students. Because I have 35+ students in each class, my time with the students is filled with much more ‘crowd control’ than music making and it saddens me. This is saddening and stressing me out to the point that I’m seriously considering other career options besides teaching in Oklahoma.”

The impact that the current education crisis is having on specific music classroom resources is also a hot topic. Many teachers have shared that their facilities have not been updated in a decade, that class overcrowding is an issue, and that they often have to do fundraisers just to buy music for their classes. Burton explains that in his band program, due to funding cuts, the costs of music education are passed on to the students. Band students have to pay a band fee to cover costs such as transportation and audition fees that are normally covered in the general budget. “We have also eliminated extra support staff so there is no one available to drive our students to contests or festivals. We have to come up with this funding as well.”

During Brenda Mechling’s 21 year teaching tenure as choral director at Del City High, she has had countless fundraisers to supplement her music budget. “It takes away from my instructional class time to discuss the fundraiser and to collect money. Turning in money happens every day. You have to remind them daily to go sell these items. This year we have sold chocolate bars, beef sticks, candles, baked goods, tickets for concerts, had silent auction baskets, and donation buckets at Christmas concerts.” Mrs. Mechling explained that “In the past we have sold jewelry, brochure sales, grocery bags, wrapping paper, cinnamon rolls, and even braided bread. The sad part about it is that the fundraising used to be just for extra items. Now it is for music, textbooks, sound and audio equipment, and buses for school music events that used to be allocated from our general education fund. Our kids became fundraisers so that they can have the same opportunities as the previous students in our program. They became their own fundraisers for what they need. That is so sad, because this used to be given to us by the state.”

“I could actually spend my music budget for the year in the first two weeks of school.”

Abell said of her vocal music students: “These students have had a generation of financial cuts. For the last decade we have been told as teachers, ‘Maybe you will have funding next year.’ On top of no new funding, there have also been mid-year cuts. In Norman ISD, just a few weeks ago, we received a budget cut of $360,000. The teacher walkout is sending the message that we are at the end of our rope. As teachers, this is our last resort, but it has been an important issue for a long time. I have stretched the music budget as far as it can go. I could actually spend my music budget for the year in the first two weeks of school. We now receive about $2.50-$3.00 per student for the high school music program. This affects which activities we can allow our students to participate in. All funding which in the past came from our music budget now has to come from fundraising that I, as the music teacher, organize and manage. We even fundraise so that students may participate in All State contest auditions. Being a ‘half-time teacher and half-time fundraiser’ takes away time from instruction. I am meeting with fundraising representatives and counting money instead of preparing my students for choral performances. I have 100 more students in my music program than I had ten years ago and far less money. The low-funding crisis has also affected music educator professional development. If I go to a convention, I have to pay for that myself as there is no funding for professional development. It comes out of my pocket.”

Music educators are concerned about what the decline in education support means for the future of their students. Abell stated that “the state of Oklahoma has been affected by the declining support of education funding over the last 10-15 years. It has snowballed.”

Since the music teachers walked out of their classrooms this week, music classrooms have been silent, but educators hope their actions communicate a specific message. For her part, Abell hopes “it communicates to the world the dignity of our profession as music educators. Lately it seems that even my own students recognize the demise of teacher status as a respected profession that is worthy. They say things like, ‘We know you are a teacher; you don’t have money for that.’ I believe that like any other college-related profession, we deserve better. I also hope our actions help more of our colleagues stay in Oklahoma to teach. The last five student teachers that worked with me did not stay in Oklahoma but left to work in other states that pay more.”

Mr. Burton shares that the funding issue was addressed early on in his hiring, because the district slashed the band director position to that of a half time job and asked him if he could obtain alternative certification in another high school subject in order to be hired as a full time employee. “I was hired as half music teacher and half math teacher. I teach 3 math classes and 3 music classes. My professional development has to be split between these two subjects and I am worried that I will end up being a jack of all trades and master of none.”

An Oklahoma teacher carrying a picket sign that reads "FUND PUBLIC $ EDUCATION!"

My own university music education students have commented on the poor infrastructure and facilities that they see in their observations of elementary and secondary schools in Oklahoma.

Emily Wright stated, “In some schools I have visited, the facilities are often not clean. Tiles in ceilings are falling down. There is roof damage, leaking and molding in some schools.” Other students have commented on the lack of resources that impact student music learning such as choir rooms with no risers, lack of funding for accompanists, and a lack of sheet music and updated technology. One of my students noted that an elementary music teacher was given a $15.00 check for school supplies which was meant to last the whole year. Burton notes that there are no resources for new instruments and students have to again pay for any instrument repairs. “We aren’t doing any instrument repairs.”

Tess Moseley, a senior music education student at Oklahoma Christian University shares her concerns about the teacher walkout and how it is impacting her student-teaching semester. “I have nowhere to student teach, as both of my sites are participating in the walkout. I don’t know if I will be able to receive my certification in time to teach next year. This is a complex situation…the walkout is beneficial because it is fighting for our first-year teaching salary. At the same time, I’ve spent four years with thousands of dollars in student loans, and I may not be able to do what I’ve worked so hard for until later…I hope for the best in this walkout, as stressful and necessary as it is.”

School administrators are affected by the education crisis by stretching personnel resources beyond the norm. There are fewer counselors and resource officers, and teacher turnover is an epidemic. Abell noted, “My principal shared that it is difficult to have 28 new teachers every year. When one fourth of the staff turns over every year, the stability of a school suffers.”

Brenda Mechling shares that she believes walking out is important but that the ongoing conversations with legislators are key. “In the past few days, just being present at the capitol is the best I could do. If you don’t get to the capitol right at 7:30 a.m. to stand in line, you don’t get in to see a legislator because the lines are too long. During my spring break, I visited my legislators two separate times. I left cards that stated my concerns and contact information. I was not contacted with a follow up communication from either one of my legislators.”

Burton summarizes his frustration in saying that the current funding situation in Oklahoma schools allows us to maintain, but not to move forward. “It is the biggest frustration of all.

It’s asking multiple music programs to be average. We would never ask our students to be just average. We want much for them. Actually, what teachers are asking the legislature for now will just bring us up to average! This walk out was necessary because nothing else has worked since I graduated high school ten years ago. I believe that if it takes the teachers to get this problem solved, then I say go for it. It is time for our state to take care of it. By ignoring the education funding crisis, this neglected issue is affecting the future of the state.”

Being heard in a different kind of chorus…

Brenda Mechling shares that she would like to have the full 50 minutes to teach and not have to use 15 minutes of instruction daily to fundraise for needed instructional supplies and music. “Oh my gosh, that would touch my heart, then I could really have more music making opportunities with my students. These kids are not getting the same education as they were when I first started 21 years ago.”

This week as teachers have met with legislators, media and community leaders, their voices are being heard in a different kind of chorus. Hopefully, the unity that Oklahoma teachers are showing to the world will result in school funding reform. If so, music education in Oklahoma will crescendo and grow past the grand pause that has occurred the last decade.