The Day the Music Died

Even as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes its home in the city of Cleveland, the measure before the board may literally cut the musical heart out of Ohio's public schools.
11/12/2014 05:04 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

In 1984, the group Huey Lewis and the News scored a hit with the song, "The Heart of Rock and Roll." Besides its driving beat, the song also garnered attention for its lyrics--or at least what people thought they heard that "the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland." In fact, the lyrics read, "the heart of rock and roll is still beating." Unfortunately in 2014, in both cases the band would be wrong. A controversial measure before the Ohio State Board of Education threatens to seriously lop music and arts instruction in the Buckeye State.

Even as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes its home in the city of Cleveland, the measure before the board may literally cut the musical heart out of Ohio's public schools. This would be a tragedy anywhere, but especially in Ohio, given the state's rich history of contributing to musical innovations through artists, who in many cases were first introduced to music and the arts in the state's public schools.

Significantly, music and the arts are not the only programs at risk, but they are the most vulnerable. On November 11, the board was scheduled to decide if it would abandon what is known as the "five of eight" rule. That directive currently requires schools to maintain a minimum of five staff from eight different specialty areas for every 1,000 students. In the past those specialty areas included librarians, nurses, social workers and guidance personnel along with music and the arts teachers. Now the state wants not only to abolish the rule but also include other specialty areas such as reading specialists and English language learning professionals in the pool of specialty personnel.

Music and arts teachers, of course, are justifiably worried. In advance of the meeting teachers and education activists from Ohio and from across the country took to social media to send the Ohio State Board of Education a message. When the proposal came up for a vote on Monday before the board's Operating Standards Committee, the presumed strong support had crumbled. Although the proposed changes passed that committee in a close 4-3 vote, the three committee members specifically cited that the wave of email and social media messages caused them to reconsider their previous support.

The digital outcry affirmed the observations of Ohio parent Nathan Buchanan who summarized the problem in an interview with a local news station. "You can't do without the nurses, you can't do without the librarians," he explained; "I mean those are things that you need, you have to have those. Every part of the school needs it, I wouldn't cut any of it."

The outcry also apparently resulted in a change of heart on the part of four members of the board who walked out of another meeting on Tuesday in protest after controversial board Chair Debe Terhar attempted to change the meeting agenda in a move that would have effectively silenced a large group of people who had come to voice their opposition to the change.

While, this may have the desired effect of forestalling the vote in Ohio, the battle is far from over and is indicative of a much larger struggle on the national stage. Ohio would be wise to look to other states like Pennsylvania and Illinois where similar efforts have been disastrous.

Ohio's Republican Governor John Kasich, in league with the Republican dominated General Assembly, has been targeting education budgets for deep cuts for four years. This has precipitated a crisis frighteningly similar to other states where cuts have forced districts to make impossible choices between hiring nurses, librarians or instructors in the music and the arts, all vital in their own way.

Although state and local tax issues have also compromised funding, the Kasich administration's deliberate choice to funnel money to charter schools through a voucher program has further contributed to the current funding crunch fueling the present crisis. Ohio has also rushed to embrace online testing compelling districts to choose to commit millions of dollars on new technologies devoted solely to high stakes testing over the retention and hiring of new personnel to fully staff schools.

As a result, the range of academic offerings has become increasingly limited and in many cases, with schools sharing nurses and guidance personnel, there is little cohesion or support raising concerns not only about curriculum but safety.

In making such "hard" choices of course, music and the arts, are generally the first to be eliminated. Seen as non-essential by the non-educators making these decisions, music and arts programs are quickly disappearing from the educational landscape.

While this is a nationwide concern, in highly deindustrialized cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown, Ohio, the slashing of music and arts programs along with the advent of high stakes testing may offer a new reading on another great song, Don Mclean's "American Pie."

Mclean, interestingly, penned the song in Philadelphia in 1971. The refrain, "the day the music died" refers to a plane crash that took the lives of three musicians, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in February of 1959, whom Mclean admired.

Given recent efforts to strip school districts of music and arts programs Mclean's lyrics might be revised and offered in a whole new context. Set against the backdrop of corporate education reform and the insistence that the only thing students need to focus on are Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses; the arts and humanities--along with what most would consider essential services such as school nurses are left to compete for remaining funding dollars in a high stakes battle royal in which nobody and especially not students, wins.

If some daring artist was to amend Mclean's classic for the present moment, I imagine she might, in light of the present moment begin something like this:

In the three places where the music was first to go
Philadelphia, Detroit and Ohio
They drove the teachers out and left the students low
The day the music died.

Preventing this from taking place will certainly take a lot more people willing to stand up and speak out against the further retrenchment of our schools. "Vision," satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, "is the art of seeing what is invisible to others." The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it more plainly, "Without music, life would be a mistake." That, unfortunately, is exactly what the Ohio State Board of education will be making if they forge ahead with the current proposal. It is our collective responsibility as caretakers of American education to keep the pressure on to keep this from happening.