Losing the music: the ACLU and Long Beach schools

By Kerri Hikida • Director of Operations at Jammin’ Music & Arts

The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) has long been lauded for its excellent school music programs. Starting in third grade, students were able to study the violin or cello, and in the fourth and fifth grades, they could also choose a woodwind instrument. Many of these budding musicians went on to play in Long Beach’s award-winning middle- and high-school bands and orchestras.
Many studies have been done showing the positive effects studying a musical instrument has on the mind, including improved memory, concentration, and abstract reasoning skills. Which is why, as a Long Beach parent, I was dismayed to hear that this year, LBUSD would be cutting back on its music programs for elementary-school students.
The reason? A class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010 against the State of California over “public school academic fees,” for things like field trips, transportation, classroom supplies, art materials, and music instrument rentals. One Long Beach school, the California Academy of Math and Science, was specifically named by the ACLU in its report “Pay to Learn: An Investigation of Mandatory Fees for Educational Activities in California Public Schools” for its offense of “charging students fees for physical education uniforms that they are required to wear.” The ACLU states that these fees violate the California Constitution guaranteeing children a free education and discriminate against the poor.
Because of this climate, and a corresponding California Assembly Bill 165 aiming to codify the principles of the lawsuit, the LBUSD restructured its music programs for 2011: instrumental music education for all third graders has been suspended, fourth graders are limited to violin only, and fifth graders can choose between strings and “advanced woodwinds.” Participants at each school are chosen by lottery. Twenty violins will be supplied at each school for children to share, but they will not be able to take the instruments home, according to LBUSD Music Curriculum Leader James Petri.
In this era of severe budget cutbacks to public schools, is this the right time for such a lawsuit? According to an article on LBUSD’s website, nearly 1,000 violins are needed for fourth and fifth graders at a cost of about $265,000; 275 trumpets are needed in fourth and fifth grades at a cost of about $126,000, and “the school district also needs cellos, flutes, clarinets, saxophones and trombones.”
A student’s right to having free textbooks and teachers is definitely worth a fight. But playing an instrument, playing on the football team, being a cheerleader, going on a field trip– can we really expect public scho­­ols to shoulder the entire costs of these programs when they can barely afford to retain the instructors? Is it really unreasonable to require parents to pay for team uniforms their child will be wearing, or to rent an instrument their child will be blowing into?
It would appear that Governor Brown agrees. He vetoed AB 165 on Oct. 8, stating that the bill “goes too far” and “takes the wrong approach” in addressing student fee issues. The ACLU lawsuit, which was stalled pending the outcome of AB 165, will now move forward.
In the meantime, the cuts to the local elementary music programs have already taken place.
No one wants a child to be left out of an activity because they can’t afford to pay the fees. However, scholarships or booster funds can be made available for those who truly can’t afford them. While the intentions of the ACLU are to ensure that no one is left out, if the schools can’t ask parents to pitch in somewhere, it becomes more likely that everyone will be left out.

The Long Beach Unified School District is accepting instrument donations. Call (562) 997-8175 to donate instruments, or bring instruments to a collection day scheduled for 9am to noon Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Teacher Resource Center, Room C, 1299 E. 32nd St., in Signal Hill.

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