Thanks to a middle school band program, a young woman named Hannah learned to play the trombone, and eventually earned a music scholarship to college. This program was not actually provided by her school—which had cut music education due to a lack of funding—but by a free, after-school program offered by the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County (YOBC).
As a member of YOBC, I learned about the orchestra’s efforts to bolster music education in underfunded schools, and I started Positive Notes, a group that collects instruments and donations to support the program. Still, efforts like mine and those of YOBC can only go so far. In a 2014 survey, 31 percent of Pennsylvania school administrators said they had reduced or eliminated their music and theater programs in the past four years, or would do so in the coming year. And most of them don’t have the support of an outside program such as YOBC.
What we need is fair education funding in Pennsylvania, to make sure that all kids have access to a music education.
Here’s how Pennsylvania funds schools now: the most widely known source of funding is property taxes. This results in wealthier communities having more to spend per pupil. Luckily, this can be fixed by the second main source of funding: the state government. Pennsylvania should divide its education money with the goal of filling the gap between wealthier and poorer communities. This way, all schools would have a way to fund their arts programs.
But instead of using its power to make the education system fair, our state widens the funding gap between communities even more, according to POWER, a social action group. In fact, until recently, there wasn't even a formula to determine how the billions of dollars of state education funding should be split up among schools. The process was based solely on tradition and back-room negotiations. Governor Wolf signed off on a Fair Funding Formula, dividing money among schools based on need, but it is only applied to new state revenue. Ninety four percent of the state education funds will continue being distributed to schools unfairly. This leads to some schools having to cut programs. Music is typically the first thing to go.
But it may be among the most important. It is scientifically proven that music has a wide range of benefits for the brain in other school subjects. According to researchers at Justus Liebig University Giessen, just two years of music training for ten-year-olds helps to improve visual and auditory memory. In another study by scientists at Northwestern University, it was found that music training in teenage years enhances sensitivity to sound details and improves language skills.
Though it’s important to let all students have access to the benefits of a music education, providing equal support in each school district may take time. This is because ever since 1991, Pennsylvania has followed the “hold harmless” principle, saying that schools should not be given less money than they received the year before. People are concerned that the wealthy schools would suffer if they stopped getting the amount they were accustomed to receiving. This concern can be addressed if fair funding is gradually transitioned in, but it is imperative that we start now. Students like Hannah shouldn’t have to depend on the kindness of strangers to receive a first-rate education.