By Ricky O’Bannon

Music education advocacy groups celebrated Thursday as the Senate passed a version of the main federal education bill that would retain arts and add music to a list of “core academic subjects.”

“The music education community has poured its blood, sweat and tears into getting the Senate’s bill to this point,” said Chris Woodside in a press release following the bill’s approval.

Woodside is the assistant executive director of National Association for Music Education, which is one of the largest advocacy groups for music education, and has vocally advocated for the inclusion of music as a priority in Congress’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA for short.)

“There is bipartisan support for music and arts in this legislation—senators from across the country are acknowledging that these subjects should be national education priorities,” Woodside continued. “That’s really big, and we’re grateful.”

While groups like NAfME are celebrating, the ESEA faces an uphill battle as the Senate, House of Representatives and White House still have to go to conference and compromise on just what provisions will make it into the largest piece of federal legislation on education. Below is a brief overview of the ESEA, its history and what exactly naming music as a “core subject” might mean.

What is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

The ESEA was originally passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The law sets out federal guidelines for state and local governments on certain education standards, testing and accountability and provides federal education grants.

The law has traditionally been tweaked and reauthorized every five years, but the last version of the bill to be passed was in 2002 when the law was renamed “No Child Left Behind.” Eight years after a new bill was slated, both the House and the Senate have finally passed new versions of the ESEA.

The House bill retains language from No Child Left Behind that designates arts as a core subject. The Senate bill goes one step further and specifically adds music to that list. Both versions will head to committee to resolve the differences, including whether music becomes a core subject. However, there are two divisive issues unrelated to arts that could derail reconciliation between the two chambers of Congress or even lead to a presidential veto.

One of the main goals in replacing No Child Left Behind in both bills is to roll back federal testing requirements and give more power to the states to come up with accountability plans. That idea has bi-partisan support, and the Department of Education under the Obama administration has been granting states waivers from No Child Left Behind to do just this for several years. However, civil rights groups and the White House believe the current replacement bills go too far on this path and don’t do enough on the federal level to require states to identify and improve struggling schools. That distinction could mean a presidential veto even if the Senate and House can agree on the differences between their two bills.

Similarly another possible division point has to do with allowing federal funding to follow students from low-income households. The federal government awards grants called Title I funds to school districts with low-income students. A Republican-backed measure would make those funds “portable,” meaning if a low-income student transfers out of their neighborhood school to a new one, that money would follow them, which Republicans argue give students more choice.

Congressional Democrats and the White House argue this could gut the low-income school districts those transferring students leave behind. The House version of the bill, which was passed without Democrat support, includes this measure. The Senate version, which has bipartisan support, does not.

What Does Being a “Core Subject” Mean?

“Core subjects” carry certain legal requirements. For example, an instructor teaching that course must be “highly qualified,” meaning they must have at least a bachelor’s degree and hold a state teaching certificate in the area they are teaching. But beyond higher standards for teachers leading those courses, music education advocates see the designation as a statement of values.

As Wynton Marsalis once wrote in an Op-ed, “School administrators facing budget cuts often look to eliminate what they consider ‘nonessential’ programs. Invariably, their red pen lands on the same line item: music class.”

Particularly when schools might be fighting budget deficits or struggling with test scores in subjects where student progress is more easily quantified, there is a common fear among advocates that music and arts would be on the chopping block if it is viewed as an extra-curricular “nice to have” rather than a need.

The hope is that the distinction of being a “core subject” might insulate music and arts from cuts if they are federally required as part of the curriculum. Depending on how a district views the listing of arts already as a core subject, the addition of music could be viewed as redundant. However, adding music specifically outside of the general arts umbrella as the Senate bill does might also ensure that a district can’t offer a few arts courses without a music program and still satisfy those federal requirements.

What are the Traditional Core Subjects?

The current core subjects as outlined in No Child Left Behind are English, reading or language arts, math, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history and geography.

The Senate ESEA bill adds “technology, engineering, computer science, music, and physical education — and any other subject as determined by the state or local educational agency."

Historically, core subjects have made up a much shorter list — sometimes as short as the oddly named Three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1989, the National Governors Association released a set of education goals that listed English, math, science, history and geography. Following up on that conference, President George H.W. Bush released “America 2000” in 1991, which outlined a national education strategy listing the same five subjects as core curriculum.

As Bob Morrison of the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership writes about that period, the arts community started pushing to add arts to the list outlined in America 2000 but were rebuffed. In a letter responding to one music education advocacy group, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said he would certainly want his local schools to provide arts, but they were “extra-curricular.”

Responding to Alexander and America 2000, Michael Greene — chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences who oversees the Grammy Awards — used the pulpit of the 1992 Grammys to criticize the federal Department of Education’s lack of inclusion of music or arts as a core curriculum.

According to Morrison, Secretary of Education Alexander called a friend in the Nashville music business to ask, “Who is Mike Greene and what is his [expletive] problem?” A few days after, a concert was planned by arts advocates protesting the threatened elimination of the music program in Maryville, Tennessee — which happened to be the hometown of Alexander.

Eventually the pressure led to an announcement shortly after the Grammys speech by the secretary of “America 2000 Arts Partnership,” which strengthened the emphasis of arts. That emphasis was written into law in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the “Goals 2000” education reform measure (later replaced by No Child Left Behind), which for the first time set up national curriculum and standards for arts education.

So while arts are currently outlined under existing federal legislation as a core part of U.S. education goals, they’ve enjoyed a relatively short history with that status. Arts and music advocacy groups aren’t ready to assume that status is safe in future rewrites to federal education guidelines, and groups like NAfME have led letter-writing and social media campaigns to lawmakers working on the ESEA. For now, they are celebrating getting to this point as they watch to see whether national leaders can agree on and finalize the law.