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Posted at 10:11 AM ET, 11/17/2009

Fairfax: You've got to be kidding

By Valerie Strauss

Music education with no instruments?

I wish someone were kidding. But that’s one of the possibilities in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the finest systems in the country and the largest in the Washington D.C. area, as it wrestles with a projected $176 million shortfall for next year.

My colleague Michael Chandler has a fine story in the Post today about other programs that could be on the chopping block too: Language immersion programs at a dozen elementary schools and an introduction to foreign language at 31 elementary schools.

Also at risk are full-day kindergarten programs.

Here we go again.

Educators decide that learning a foreign language is important for students as they develop into productive adults in the 21st century, and that learning to play an instrument has a slew of important benefits, and then put them first on the chopping block. Kids are now expected to hit the ground running in first grade, and then full-day kindergarten programs are the first to go.

You may look at that list and say that those programs seem like the right place to start if you have to cut. I don’t.

To be sure, there are legitimate arguments about the best ways to teach it, and questions about whether schools do it well. But the need for these programs should not be in question; school systems should be investing in programs that work.

The same goes for music. It should be more than an elective. Music is part of what makes us human, I believe, and so apparently do band boosters at the middle and high school levels who are mobilizing parents to fight cuts to band and strings from all elementary schools.

If the cuts are made, general music education in elementary schools would continue but without instruction in playing an instrument, according to music teachers in the system.

Teaching music without instruments? Is that worthy of one of the finest systems in the country?

If kids can’t learn how to play instruments in elementary school, many of them will never pick one up when they get to middle school because the atmosphere is different and what is “cool” does not include picking up a trumpet, said Zac Gomez, director of the sixth grade band at Poe Middle School. Poe has eight bands today, but if the elementary programs that feed into are cut, not many will survive.

Is that a tragedy of the first order?

No. But it shouldn’t happen, not in Fairfax, not if the folks in charge of the money really believe kids need a well-rounded education to be productive adults in these complicated times.

When can we get policy-makers to look at the hypocrisy of their rhetoric--“Education is the most important thing”--when they keep smashing school budgets to smithereens?

By Valerie Strauss  | November 17, 2009; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County Public Schools  | Tags:  Fairfax County Public School, music education  
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Next: BRADY: When captains of business and industry ‘hijacked’ education--and teachers let them


It is unimaginable that Fairfax elementary schools would cut band and strings. People have been learning instruments in elementary school for generations! Playing an instrument is a valuable skill, both for professional and personal reasons. I would cut FLES, based on my third-grader's experience learning Chinese. She has barely learned anything and this is her third year. Unfortunately, FLES expense is a mere drop in the bucket and won't make a difference to the budget. Let's look at those costs for paying for kids to take A.P. tests. If a student is not receiving free/reduced price lunches, then he or she should pay the A.P. test fee. There is no reason to subsidize some affluent family, who will save hundreds or thousands of dollars by avoiding the college tuition for that class.

Posted by: drl97 | November 17, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

While I wholeheartedly support any measure directed at cutting FLES, my children were in the Spanish partial immersion at Laurel Ridge and it made a huge difference for them in high school and college. Both girls are fluent with one having a double major in Spanish while the other is an International Studies major with a business concentration and is using these skills during a year abroad in Madrid. They use these skills in daily living here in Fairfax and both found summer jobs and volunteer opportunities where being bilingual was an asset. I am also convinced that immersion helped one of our daughters with a learning disability as it taught her how to work through problems in a different way.

Posted by: Ebola_22039 | November 17, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Instrumental music has been taught in public school for many decades and we've had many recessions, but it's only now that instrumental music has become "too expensive". What needs to be cut instead are English As A Second Language programs for anyone who is not a citizen or legal resident.

Posted by: postisarag | November 17, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I wept as I read the other comments. The issue with the FCPS budget isn't FLES or band or other programs being "too expensive." The over-riding issue is the County Supervisors' reluctance to properly finance their schools. What the other commenters write is all valid, but each looked at only a teensy-tiny part of a larger several hundred million dollar struggle.
We have an aging population that has a large economic split. Fewer of us have kids in the schools - which fuels the reluctance to pay the taxes to properly finance them - and those who are doing well (Fairfax County has one of the highest median income levels in existence) are resenting paying for poorer children's education.
We are under-taxed in Fairfax County. We need an income-based tax, to go along with our property taxes. This could be done on a zero-sum basis initially, and then let run. Incomes in Fairfax County continued to increase during the recent recession, even as home values shrank. Federal employees got large pay raises during the recession. They can afford to pay more taxes. Retired people did, too, and could continue to pay what they were paying - at a minimum. Instead, tax revenues shrank because property values shrank and our Supervisors lack the gumption to take up the slack.
So now our schools - which spend 85 cents of every dollar on school-based salaries - must cut hundreds of millions from their budgets. Where might this come from but ending programs? Close whole schools?
Raise the revenue and keep FLES and band. Just raise the revenue! Stop starving our schools.

Posted by: LoveIB | November 17, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

LovelB made a good point. I'd like to see the Post do an analysis of revenues and costs over the last 10 years. Yes, property values have declined, but not as low as they were 10 years ago, right? Yet 10 years ago, we had vibrant programs, including band/strings. (Not to mention parks, libraries, etc.) How can we be in such dire straits now, compared to 10 years ago? Is it health insurance costs rising? Has the number of children exploded? Somebody please write an article about that.

Posted by: drl97 | November 17, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

The Supervisors and School Board are going after "gold watches" to foment heated community meetings that recommend increases in real estate tax rates to maintain revenue at about the same level as the last two years, instead of proposing adjusted real estate tax rates at the start of the process.

No real leadership in Fairfax County....

Posted by: mcmitaly | November 17, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Don't fight, unite!

The board of supervisors needs to fully fund the schools and no programs or services should be cut. FLES and instrumental music do not add up to 176 million dollars. If the board does not show real leadership, and raise revenue, then our children will have a significantly different educational experience next year. Thanks for writing about this issue in a way that makes so much sense.

Posted by: zacgomez | November 18, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

To drl97's question - in the last ten years, there has been an increase in student population of 19,000 students. Also, part of the reason for the shortfall for the 2011 FCPS budget are increased health care costs and mandatory pension outlays. It would be great for the WP to do a detailed article on the budget. It seems like every day there is another article coming out on bits and pieces of cuts (foreign language) and savings (have more kids walk to school). Tomorrow may be it will be an article on cutting band and strings, and the next day sports... Both Fairfax County government and FCPS have lots of information on their websites with statistics, powerpoints, etc.

Posted by: mhs11 | November 18, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

What needs to happen is the school board needs to have independent taxing authority. That way we don't play this stupid game every year where the school board has to beg the county board of supervisors for money, and we end up in this crazy negotiation process between the board of supervisors, the school board, and the superintendent. Let the school board set its own budget with its own tax rate, and then if the people don't value the programs the school board supports the voters can elect new people. I'm sure if the school board had to justify their budget to the voters, and only the voters, we wouldn't be in this budget crisis.

Posted by: Rob63 | November 18, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse

I would like to see an analysis of the costs of sports. Everytime someone suggests cutting sports to save money, the public is told that the sports program pays for itself. But everytime a levy is up for a vote, the school board says it will have to cut all extra-curricular activties, including sports, to save money if the levy fails.

Which is it?

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 19, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

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