White Folks Facing Race: Equity in the APS Music Program
[This is part of my White Folks Facing Race series, originally written on October 21, 2019 to an email group created for community members in the Washington, DC area.]
Here’s the bigger topic email I promised you. I’ve been working on finding an example that would really exemplify the inequities many APS students experience. There are so many different angles, so many examples to choose from, that it often feels overwhelming, impossible to address, and even hard to think or talk about. So here’s my attempt at an example to show where inequities can be found and how to address them.
I also want to share that this post has been really conflicting for me to write, particularly the part about PTAs. As you probably know, I’m heavily involved in PTAs in Arlington, both at my children’s school and at the county level and I care deeply about the PTA mission to advocate for the education and well-being of our students. My biggest concerns lie in the common (mis)understanding that PTAs are fundraising machines for our schools, which tends to increase disparities among our schools. The CCPTA is working on two parts of this (in addition to the CPCI grant fund): (1) a partnership program to encourage schools to collaborate and support each other and thereby address some of these disparities; and, (2) working closely with APS to clarify and document appropriate PTA spending and independence, which can then be shared with all of our schools as recommendations and guidelines moving forward. PTA spending in Arlington is significant — $2 mil in the 17/18 school year — and must be included in conversations about educational equity.
My recent research focused on the APS music program (and was certainly not exhaustive, so it’s just a start). The APS curriculum includes Arts Education, which includes Instrumental Music starting in 4th grade. The APS website states: “Music Education is an integral part of core curriculum.” and “Arlington Public Schools strives to educate all students to the highest level of musical skill and knowledge commensurate with talent and ability.” If you read the Band Curriculum document, for example, the expectation is that every APS student will have the opportunity to play a musical instrument starting in 4th grade: “Students will begin instruction on a band instrument of their choice.” So far, so good. Equal opportunity, student choice.
What I could not find quickly was a policy/PIP/process showing how APS is ensuring that every student has access to an instrument of their choice. I wondered — how are school instrument inventories created, maintained, and updated over time? How and when are families asked to rent instruments from private sources in order for their students to participate in the music program? What happens if families are unable to rent instruments? What happens if the school collection does not provide enough variety (or quality) that a student who cannot rent their own actually gets an instrument “of their choice”? What structure is in place to evaluate the quality and variety of school instrument collections so that the baseline quality and variety is adequate at each of our schools? Is there budget available for replacements and/or new instruments over time? How much time do instrumental music teachers spend fixing or tuning instruments instead of on instruction time? How does this vary among schools in which many students rent their instruments privately versus school-rented instruments?
I reached out to Pam, Arts Education Supervisor at APS, about these questions. I still haven’t seen documented policy/process information, but we had a productive conversation. For example, she talked about being flexible about the way they funded replacing the drum lines for the three high school marching bands and how they made sure that they were all replaced at the same time. But she also talked about how her budget only covered a portion of those costs and that the parent booster clubs for the marching bands paid for a portion of the cost. But maybe marching bands are a special case since they are already so supported by parent groups?
For elementary and middle school instruments, she said that first priority to renting school-owned instruments is given to students who qualify for free/reduced meals and that the rental cost is applied on a sliding scale and that no student is denied an instrument if they are unable to pay for it. The costs are $100 for the year per student; $50/year for reduced meal rates; and $25/year for free meal rates. We didn’t get into what happens when a school has a really high F/R rate and the inventory at that school includes a significant number of violins that are so old that they cannot stay in tune, for example. Do schools with more demand for school-rented instruments (versus privately rented) have a larger inventory to meet the higher need? Are they maintained/replaced/repaired more frequently?
The APS music budget is fully spent every year. Pam said that the maintenance and repair budget runs about $55k per year. New purchases are separate and the biggest expenses are marching band instruments and pianos. The budget used to be divided equally among the schools by school level (elementary, middle, high), but they discovered that wasn’t covering schools fairly, so it’s distributed equitably now, looking at need first.
She stressed that music teachers should reach out to her before asking PTAs or outside sources to pay for instruments. Part of the reason is because the music program needs to know about the actual level of need in our schools so they can request more funding to cover it. The other reason is that the music program has to maintain and repair any instruments the school has, so a school’s inventory becomes APS responsibility, whether APS purchased the instruments or not.
So this brings up the PTA layer. What is the role of PTAs and their potential ability to supplement a school’s resources? It is so important for student need to be met, but if APS or individual schools then rely on PTAs for financial support of things that are “an integral part of the core curriculum,” then how do we hold APS accountable for providing the basic resources for educating our students? How does APS ensure equity if PTAs step in and lean on the scale? How can PTAs adjust to ensure that the support a PTA is providing is in line with our mission of advocating for the education and well-being of our students, rather than focusing solely on fundraising and spending money in ways that may or not be in line with that mission?
At schools that have more well-resourced families, both independently and via the PTA, the budget provided by APS to each school can potentially be more flexible as families can pay for things that APS might otherwise have to cover. So when PTAs have the opportunity to help, for example by purchasing new instruments for their school, they likely remove the responsibility from APS to provide these items from its own budget. How do we stop the slide of our schools depending on parents to supplement the basic necessities of our children’s education to such an extent that APS can no longer be held accountable for inequities because it’s actually PTAs that are tilting the scale?
If we believe that every student should have the same basic access to the same opportunities for learning, then we have to ensure access to the same basic resources at every school for every student, regardless of their economic situation (or any other considerations), and that those resources are provided by APS, not by PTAs or outside sources.
So what can you do? Start asking questions. Chat up the instrumental music teacher and ask about what kinds of instruments they have, how old they are, how much time they spend fixing instruments when they would rather be teaching. Call up someone at APS about whatever program you’re interested in and find out how they address school needs for that program. Ask about equity. You can do this for anything that interests you at your child’s school or countywide, whether you are part of the PTA or not. Ask questions. Doing so will tell APS staff that parents care about equity and that they have parent support in advocating for equity in their work (if they’re not already doing it). This is what parental educational equity work looks like — advocating for the entire school or the entire county in the way APS educates all of our students. Showing that we care how they do their work and that we support them in doing their work in a way that promotes equity.
You can do the same with your PTA. If there are items on the PTA budget that make you wonder about its focus on advocacy, ask about it. If you’re unsure whether something is appropriate PTA spending, feel free to reach out and we can talk it through. You can also refer to the documents on the CCPTA website, which we’re slowly adding to. As you do this, please also keep in mind the independence of PTAs from their schools. School administrators do not decide how funding is spent and funds should only be given to the school for specific purposes (with receipts!), not a general principal’s fund. As the CCPTA develops its guidelines, I’m sure I’ll be reaching out for your input. And in the meantime, if you have ideas for questions I can add to the FAQ, please share them!
Thank you all for engaging in this important work. I look forward to hearing about your advocacy.
Listen. Amplify. Follow.