Fixing music: time, money and local priorities

Time and money are always scarce in public education. This scarcity constrains what is possible and forces everyone from the classroom to the superintendent to set priorities, often at the expense of what people value or what is effective.

This seems to be what is at play as Cleveland Heights-University Heights school leaders examine how to make music a higher priority for our school district and a bigger part of the school day.

Music cannot be an afterthought or considered a luxury if this part of the curriculum is to really support the learner. Like reading and math, music requires daily practice to gain mastery. A longstanding concern is that our middle-school instrumentalists enter high school with half as many days of instruction as students in neighboring communities. It’s time to change our district priorities.

On May 2, I attended the board of education’s (BOE) work session where Toia Robinson and Karen Lidell-Anderson delivered the report of a stakeholder committee that examined the root causes of diminished opportunities and shrinking enrollment in music. The report, which can be seen in the BOE section of the school district's website, (, consists of a list of 91 causes and a 10-point list of remedies. How the district uses time and money are the centerpiece to this case for improving opportunities and engagement.

Sadly, two state policies—vouchers and testing—are exerting pressure on the district budget and on the use of school time. The superintendent, who will take the report and propose a course of action for the district to implement, will have to balance local priorities and state demands.

Prior to 2021, the state required local school districts to pay part of the cost of private-school vouchers. Our district was hemorrhaging $9 million a year for this. Facing a dire budget shortfall, the district cut the teaching staff in the arts. At the May board meeting, Board President Jodi Sourini expressed her regret; it’s a policy she would like to take back. The impact on elementary music has been severe. Finances also ended co-teaching of middle-school instrumental music and required music personnel to take on duties unrelated to music.

Ohio’s punitive testing requirements and judgmental report cards put school districts on the defensive and hijack the use of time and money. Test score-boosting activities nudge out music in scheduling decisions. These are just a few of the ways music is allowed to fade.

Music learning was especially vulnerable during COVID. It was hard for kids to learn to play the recorder or start a musical instrument in fourth grade from home, and it was impossible to be a part of any kind of ensemble for most of two school years. We are still recovering from that interruption. Federal funds made it possible for our district to concentrate on helping students recover from COVID-induced learning losses. Now it’s time to invest in lost learning in music.

Cleveland Heights likes to call itself a home to the arts, and we have always taken pride in our school district’s vocal and instrumental music programs. As a community we must support our local leaders in making music education a priority. The root-cause report recommends specific ways to invest in personnel, increase time, and remove scheduling barriers so that music education can more fully engage our students in this fundamental part of their development.

We don’t need the state to set our priorities. This is still our choice.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 17, Issue 6, Posted 8:58 AM, 05.29.2024