FOCUS ON ADVOCACY: “Citizen Advocates” Talk About How to Get – and Keep – Elected Officials’ Support for Music Education Programs

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It’s Election Season, and now is the time to find out where candidates and incumbent elected officials stand on music education in our schools. Four community advocates from around the United States offer their advice and perspectives in this recent conversation with Debra Bresnan.

Question: Briefly describe your history as an advocate for arts education and compare your early and recent advocacy experiences. What have you learned along the way?

Ron Frezzo:I’ve been a music teacher for 43 years. For the past 28 years, I’ve taught Vocal, AP, and IB Music at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD. I serve as State Advocacy Chair for the Maryland MEA.

I got involved in advocacy because I was concerned about cuts to our middle school music programs. In 2007, we first held meetings with our educators’ association and have since created a committee to make recommendations, present issues and possible solutions. For the past three years, our organization (with representatives from the educators’ association, music supervisors and K-12 teachers of instrumental and choral music) has met monthly to work on issues, particularly student accessibility to music education. The original issue was that counselors weren’t trying to kill music programs in our schools, but they also weren’t always encouraging interested students who had already signed up for an instrument and had their parents’ approval. This group has since looked at other issues affecting students and music teachers.

My advice is: ‘don’t go into meetings with a chip on your shoulder and demand the world. Make your program as excellent, musically, as you possibly can, and you’ll attract community support. Community members – primarily the parents – are your best advocates, especially parents who actually went through a solid music program themselves.’

Hiram Jackson:I teach Geology at a community college, and play the cello. I am the product of a great music education from 5th grade to high school, and am the father of three children, all of whom participated in school music programs. When I have time, I play in a string quartet, but these days, I’m more involved as a parent advocate in Davis, CA.

I started out as a typical parent booster – helping with field trips and concert organization – but in 2008, when elementary music program cuts were proposed, our booster organization realized that if we didn’t do anything, then who would? Because of my history growing up, I could speak more personally about the benefits of music education.

Scott Schoeffel:I’m a Councilman and past-Mayor in Dana Point, CA. I am the Director of Strategic Development at Wood Violins, and a board member for the company’s non-profit foundation. I am a musician and I serve on the Steering Committee of the SupportMusic Coalition.

In 2000, Wood Violins recognized that the future of the music product manufacturing industry rested on enlarging the number of music students (whose numbers were declining dramatically for every type of instrument largely because public school programs were being cut). Our company shifted course to create programs to supplement public school music education programs, dividing our time between educating and advocating. And, getting parents, school officials and politicians together under the right circumstances produced pretty dramatic results: they saw, firsthand at performances and rehearsals, that music was a necessary component of a child’s education. In the process, we were saving programs and augmenting stable programs.

Today, as an elected official, I can set an example and make full use of the specific skill set I’ve honed as an advocate for music education. If elected officials know the issues and do a good job, they can help set enlightened policies and invite others to get on the bus with them.

Colleen Kennedy:I’m a college student majoring in Political Science, and co-founder of Save Upper Darby Arts (SUDA). I'm a graduate of Upper Darby School District (UDSD), in Upper Darby, PA.

When I was in eighth grade at UDSD and cuts to the arts programs were considered, I gave a speech to the school board. The arts were important to me then for their personal impact. When cuts were reintroduced this past April, I knew I had to show the same commitment to these programs as an alumna.

The first thing I had to learn was how to properly take care of myself. At first, I got no sleep and lost 12 pounds and, even though hundreds of community members were fighting for the same exact thing, I wasn't willing to give up any control. Once I learned how to do that, things became easier, and the quality of my work was much better.

My advice is to think before you speak and take a moment to breathe, but don’t be afraid to speak or act. It’s a delicate balance, and comes with practice. This skill is important for lobbying a legislator, speaking with the press, and interacting with your team members.

Question: When you're trying to determine a candidate’s position on music (or any arts) education in the schools, what questions do you ask?

Hiram Jackson:This November, five people are running for two of our open school board seats; three more will be open in two years. I’ve met with all the candidates, and they support our music education programs. But, what is key is how much understanding they have of the budget and budget processes. Not all of them express adequate knowledge. It’s nice if they’re supportive of the program; it’s even better if they have an understanding of how the budget works.

Every fall, I ask for enrollment figures (per Dr. John Benham’s advice) so we know the numbers of 6th graders who may show up for music in 7th grade. This allows for planning and, along with staffing numbers, is very important information to have when speaking to administrators since they present budget options to the school board. If we say, ‘music is good for the soul,’ they’ll agree and our meeting will be short and sweet. But, when you show them the quantitative ‘why,’ they get interested and we can talk for an hour. Administrators appreciate that band and orchestra teachers have 60 students versus 30 or 40 in other classes. The materials on are most useful for making that kind of case.

Scott Schoeffel:Ask candidates about the depth (not the breadth) of their experience in music and the arts. Ask ‘what is your position on music education in our schools?’ Make sure you get a very clear answer, such as ‘music and the arts are a core part of the educational curriculum, and a child’s educational foundation is incomplete without them. I believe we should do everything we can to make sure every public school has that asset for its students.’ Ask for their specific track record so you can tell who is the real deal: there’s a big difference between saying what they have done and what they could do.

I completely agree with what Hiram Jackson said about knowledge of the budget process; it speaks to competence. Ask ‘what is your experience in government affairs? What is your track record in achieving success? What is your practical experience with the government process? How do you take a negative budget situation and go find more money? What creative solutions have you come up with and what did you do, specifically, to make that happen? What are your problem-solving skills in a multi-disciplined context?’

If you get clear answers, you’ve got a great candidate. If not, go find another one. Voters should be interested in candidates’ real qualifications to do specific jobs and need to ask really pointed questions about music and the arts.

Question: How do you develop effective relationships with your elected officials (ie, school board and city council members; regional, state, and federal representatives)?

Ron Frezzo:NAfME and MD MEA visited our representatives on Capitol Hill in August. We prepared presentations using a one-page sheet of talking points for meetings with staffers in the offices of Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, and House Members Chris Van Hollen and Elijah E. Cummings. We also left NAfME position papers and DVDs of Maryland All-State performances at the offices of Representatives Donna F. Edwards, Steny Hoyer, and Andy Harris.

These staffers actually had very good questions for us, and we received a lot of positive feedback. We were there to press the case for maintaining the arts, music specifically, as a core subject when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is reauthorized. This bill is overdue for reauthorization, but with the many issues facing Congress, it has not been fully addressed.

Hiram Jackson:Every time there is a school board meeting connected to a budget discussion, especially early on in the annual budget process, I show up, follow the budget, see where cuts may be made, and try to figure out what the remedy might be. Knowing the board members is key to communication about what’s happening with the budget. If no one is paying close attention or if people don’t understand how budget funding works, this leads to outrage or misunderstandings. If proposed cuts affect the music program, I share information with district music boosters. The board sees I’m there, I’m watching, and they’re careful; music cuts are not taken for granted.

Colleen Kennedy: It’s most important to be completely straightforward. Elected officials need to know their constituents’ needs, and deserve thanks when they come through. They want to do their jobs; they appreciate being asked for help. The taxpayer is the boss -- not the other way around -- so you should never be afraid to expect better and also to hope for the best.

-- Debra Bresnanis a communications consultant for and a member of its Steering Committee. She produces web content, newsletters and other written materials for businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals. Contact: