Grassroots Advocacy for Your Music Program

By Mary Wagner

Published in American String Teacher, February 2017

We live in a time when school budgets often seem to be coming up short, leading to possible cuts to music programs. What can you do in such a situation and are there things you can do to prevent this from happening? Two things need to be clear from the start: you, your students, and parents are the best advocates for your orchestra program. And when a cut is proposed, you are not out to save your job; you are out to save your program. It is always about the students.

Preventing Program Cuts

Let's address prevention first. It is harder to cut a program that strives for and attains excellence. Once your ensembles are performance ready, get them out in the community to perform. A colleague, Kate Blamer, has her elementary students perform in the local Halloween parade on a flatbed truck–-talk about a huge and appreciative audience! Take your students to a local senior center to perform–-they can do solos or ensembles, but try to go several times as senior centers tend to get inundated during December. If you are near a major city–-see if you can play the “Star-Spangled Banner” right before a baseball or basketball game. Check with local community organizations such as the Kiwanis, Lions Clubs, or the Chamber of Commerce to see if they might like a performance at an event.

Get to know your school board members by inviting them to your school concerts or district events. Have a parent offer to drive them to the concert. One of our school board members played violin all the way through college. Another colleague, Catherine Bond, invited him to solo with his alma mater and he was a big hit! If they don't play an instrument, maybe they could do narration on a piece or even try to play the violin with Richard Meyer's One Note Concerto. Another school board member attends concerts regularly and posts pictures on Facebook.

“Programs that do get cut are usually cut when the music community has not been paying attention to the budget process.”

Rally in support of music education in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Communication is key. Keep your parents, administrators, and classroom teachers informed about orchestra activities and expectations. Technology has made this easier, but you need to take advantage of it. Find out if your school has a press contact and, if not, find out where you can send newsworthy events.

Implement Strategies Now to Keep Your Program Funded

Unfortunately, prevention doesn't always work out. As an ASTA past-president and a former co-chair of our local advocacy group, I have had experience helping string programs in financial distress. Although it can be stressful once you find your program may be targeted for cuts, there are things you can do–-but it does take organization and time. All of the school systems I have worked with have succeeded in retaining their programs.

So, how do you get started?

  • Become familiar with your school system's budget process: When does the superintendent propose the budget? When does the school board vote on the budget and are there opportunities for public comment? Where does the funding come from? Is there a millage vote? Does the school board have fiduciary control or does the funding come from the locale?
  • Form a coalition before the budget comes out. Include parents, teachers, local music stores, private teachers, university music staff, and other interested community members. The coalition can address budget problems, but in better times it also is able to ask for increased funding for additional music offerings or equipment.
  • Maintain an accurate database of everyone involved in the coalition. Be sure to use home email addresses for teachers as, sadly, it can be seen as a conflict of interest to save your own program.
  • Assign someone to listen to the budget presentation.
  • Once you see a suggested cut, it is time to get busy!
  • Get accurate information: What is the suggested cut, how much is it worth, and how many students would be impacted? I can't stress enough–-this has to be accurate.
  • Do an email blast informing coalition members of the suggested cut and the action plan.

At this point, the plan needs to be formulated and communicated. Most school boards do have a time for public comment. Line up students, parents, and interested community members to speak at these hearings. Speakers need to feel supported, so have supporters there as they speak. Pick a color to wear to identify the arts supporters and stand quietly when those speakers do their presentation. If possible, have your state ASTA or MEA president and a local orchestra conductor speak as well. Leonard Slatkin spoke late one evening to the supervisors who provide our funding here in Virginia. The supervisors actually turned off the three-minute warning bell and let him continue to speak. When he finished, some of them told him what music meant to them when they were in school. It was very effective!

School board members also need to hear from supporters via email, personal letters, phone calls, or faxes. Plan a fax or email campaign, sending out specific talking points before this takes place. In addition to the talking points, supporters should let school board members know how their child and family has been impacted by music classes. The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) believes that the 25,000 letters sent in to Congress from music educators really helped keep music alive in the Every Child Succeeds Act. You may want to contact deans of music schools and colleges within your state and ask them to write on your behalf. This has also been effective.

School systems across the nation vary in the manner in which they receive funding. A recent National Public Radio (NPR) report said that basically 45 percent of school funding comes from the locale, 45 percent from the state, and 10 percent from the Federal government (Turner 2016).

Some locales have millage votes to determine the amount of money the school system will get. When this happens, having your program out in the community as addressed in the second paragraph is a must. It may become necessary to do some canvassing or phone banking to drum up support as well. Be very careful and be sure to get advice from the school administration about what you can and can't do.

In some states, school boards do have fiduciary power. Here in Virginia, this is not so. The school board comes up with a budget and sends it to the Board of Supervisors who determines funding. This makes for a very long process–-one that starts in January and is not completed until May. This is why you need to understand what your school system does and be aware of critical calendar dates.

John Benham, a leading music advocate in this country, will tell you that programs that do get cut are usually cut when the music community has not been paying attention to the budget process. They find out at the last minute they are on a cut list and usually there is not time to get the ball rolling to save the program. I highly recommend Dr. Benham's book, Music Advocacy: Moving from Survival to Vision.

No matter how your funding is provided, there are several things you must not do:

  • Do not use the school copier to print information for parents.
  • Do not hand information to take home to a student during school hours.
  • The same thing goes for your school computer. If you use it, create a separate email account for sending information home or, better yet, have a parent send it out.
  • Never suggest cutting another program to save yours.

Some school districts have very strict rules about what can and cannot be done. Although you are protecting your program, some sadly see it as a conflict of interest.

If you find your school system is looking at cutting orchestra or delaying the year the program begins, do NOT give up. All of the suggestions in this article have worked for many schools across the country. Yes, it can be depressing, but you know the value of the orchestra program and you have to stay strong and as positive as possible. We want our orchestra programs to keep growing! It can be done. I have listed some additional resources below if you find your program is in jeopardy.

References and Resources

Turner, C. “Why America's Schools Have a Money Problem” (NPR) 4/18/2016 (accessed 12/28/2016).

Benham, John. Music Advocacy: Moving from Survival to Vision. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011. (Distributed by NAfME).

National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) has abundant advocacy information through their SupportMusic Coalition at

Mary Wagner is a past-president of ASTA and a recent retiree from Fairfax County Public Schools where she taught for 39 years. She served for many years as co-chair of Fairfax Arts Coalition for Education (FACE). She currently works as a university supervisor for James Madison University and at Day Violins.