Saturday, February 11, 2017

DeVos, Privatization and the Future of Music Educators

The following is an interview with Mitchell Robinson, Associate Professor and Chair of Music Education at Michigan State University, who is active in struggles around school privatization and blogs from

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Do you have any general information on the over all trends in support of music education in public schools?

No—since public schools are locally controlled, this varies greatly by locale.

Setting aside for a second the issue of privatization and the drive toward charter schools, what are some of the other factors that have impacted music in public education in recent years?

It all boils down to how much a community values music and the arts—and how well teachers emphasize creativity.

Briefly – for those who are not familiar with the issue of privatization of school systems, can you in just a few sentences summarize what the trend is?  Assume that many of the readers – while music majors and studying for careers possibly as music education professionals – might not be following the developments in public education.

The reform community sees the schools not as a public institution, but as an untapped profit center. The schools are worth billions per year in investment potential, and the right sees this as an underutilized business opportunity. Their goal is to redirect public tax dollars to private bank accounts—it has nothing to do with kids or learning. Essentially, they view the schools as a business opportunity, and are dying to get their hands on that money.

What are some of the first things that happen in public districts being privatized that might impact the music teachers?

An emphasis on the “basics”, to the exclusion of subjects other than math and reading, and a drastic narrowing of the curriculum. An obsession with testing and accountability. A focus on “metrics” and “data” rather than children.

What are some of the different ways a music teacher at a public school might be rewarded and treated differently if at a charter or privatized school? 

Since charters and private schools tend not to include music as much as public schools, music teachers are less likely to be present in private schools.

The NAFME organization tried unsuccessfully – from review of their website – to get answers from DeVos as to how music might fare – do you believe her appointment as Secretary of Education will have an impact?

Yes—she gives the administration “cover” to pursue their agenda of seeking vouchers. While the DoE is likely to be less powerful in the post-ESSA era, as more control is ceded to the states, the federal government can still induce states to pursue their reform agenda by dangling grants in front of cash starved state governments.

I do think that the bruising confirmation process, which required the VP to cast the deciding vote for the first time in our nation’s history, makes DeVos a weakened SoE as she takes office.

But was not the previous administration also pro-privatization?  How might DeVos be different?

Yes, it was. The 2 big differences with DeVos are her emphasis on vouchers and religion. DeVos will work to blur the lines between the separation of church and state in her attempt to increase “Kingdom Gain.”

Which direction do you see the trend going in the immediate years to come?

I’m not optimistic in the short term—DeVos and Trump don’t understand or value education, and don’t care about public schools. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the DoE shut down, which would have a huge impact on civil rights and protections for special education students.

Is there any immediate hope for any dramatic turn around in this direction?  What would need to happen for such a turnaround to occur?

Not a lot, I’m afraid. A turnaround will need to come from an organized resistance movement, which we are starting to see. DeVos may motivate Democrats and progressives to unify, and present an organized response and push back to the conservative agenda. And a big Democratic turnout in the midterm elections in 2018.

What stake do current college under grad and graduate students who are studying with hopes of entering the music education profession in the developments in these regards?

They need to make the pivot from advocacy (NAfME’s stance) to activism. Teachers tend to avoid politics—those days are over. Everything we do—or don’t do--as teachers is political. It’s time for teachers, and teacher candidates, to step up and speak out with one voice.

What suggestions do you have for these students and how can they get involved?

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