New Day, New Congress, Same Great Music Education Cause

Dear music education community,

As our nation wakes to a brand new political reality, it seems an appropriate moment to review what has transpired, address the implications for our cause, and to reassure all that the National Association for Music Education remains as optimistic as ever about the future of music learning in America.

Detailed analysis on all national- and state-level races is available here (with education-centric analysis soon to come), but, for now, let’s examine a few 30,000-foot takeaways from last night:

  • Both chambers of Congress now rest firmly in GOP control. Legislative progress in the Senate on the issue of education will still require substantially more compromise than in the House, but, make no mistake – from here on out, the Republicans call the shots.
  • Lamar Alexander is the new education czar in America. All roads to legislative success run through the senior senator from Tennessee.
  • Thad Cochran of Mississippi is almost certainly the new Appropriations Chair.
  • Democratic leadership on key committees that impact education initiatives is currently very much up in the air.
  • President Obama will be forced to compromise with congressional Republicans on education initiatives, or risk political irrelevance on the issue, for the next two years.
  • Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will likely fare no better. The accountability movement as we have known it for the past decade, may be about to hit the skids.
  • At the state-level, education policy will be more scattershot than ever. Many traditional Democratic strongholds have broken Republican, and Democrats have made small gains of their own in a couple of non-traditional states.
  • Key education issues at the polls yesterday included taxation, Common Core, student loan debt, big labor, and charters (choice).

So, what does this all mean for our music education public policy agenda on Capitol Hill and across the country?

In short, a Republican-controlled Congress will be even less interested than before in funding federal education programs and priorities. Chairman-to-be Alexander has already made it quite clear that his goal, moving forward, will be to simplify national education legislation, by “cutting the fat.” A quick look back on the current HELP Committee Ranking Member’s 2013 ESEA reauthorization counterproposal also shows a strong emphasis on returning control to the states, and to ending the kinds of “carrot and stick” funding approaches that he viewed to be a hallmark of outgoing Chairman Harkin’s ESEA proposals (and of big government run amok).

Understanding this reality, and making peace with the likely truth that for the next two years, at least, federal funding for music programs will be worse than an afterthought, is very important to strategically dictating where we go from here as a music education community. In a couple of months, the Music Education Policy Roundtable will review its annual legislative agenda, and taking the state of play into account, will make decisions about how best to spend our time in 2015 and beyond, as a coalition, on Capitol Hill, working for the cause. As a community, we are lucky to have such a strong group of dedicated organizations committed to advocacy, and the Roundtable’s input into our collective public policy direction, moving forward, will be tremendously valuable.

Even in this new political paradigm, there will be opportunities to promote music education. The current leadership in Washington has been a challenge to work with, at times, in and of itself, and there is something to be said for wiping the slate clean. Many remaining prominent leaders on the Hill have supported, and will continue to support music education (as will many new members), regardless of their lack of willingness to back our issue financially. What that means for music advocates, is that NAfME will need to focus our work even more precisely, on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Department of Education, on achieving important compromises in key areas of legislative and regulatory language, that can serve to open doors for access and funding of programs, and improve assessment practices, at the state- and local-levels.

Back at home, music educators should continue to ascribe to the overarching philosophy that “all politics is local.” While Washington will certainly seek to set a strong legislative tone in the New Year, opportunities for garnering support for programs from administrators, school board members, and even state- and local-level elected officials will still be of paramount importance to garnering support for music education programs.

In recent years, the national climate in which we have worked to promote our issue has been hostile, to say the least, and, at times, it has felt as though we were fighting an uphill battle. Advocacy on behalf of music education has never been for the weak-willed, however, and we, as a music education community, cannot back down, now or ever, from a challenge. As such, over the course of the next few weeks, advocates should take the time to get to know their newly minted elected officials, and even consider sending them a welcoming note of congratulations. NAfME plans to do the same. Now is the time to build these relationships and to be receptive to dialogue – even from the most unlikely of potential allies.

As always, we must seek friends in all places, and remember, at all times, that ours is never a partisan issue – it is a personal one – which both transcends politics and awakens people in profound ways. All children deserve the right to experience the power of music education orchestrating success in their lives, and it remains the greatest joy in all of ours, here at the National Association for Music Education, to fight to bring it to them, each and every day. Thank you for all that you do in classrooms across America, and for your continued participation in our national advocacy efforts.



Christopher Woodside
Assistant Executive Director, NAfME