The Business of K12 music education

How districts find resources to overcome cuts to arts funding and testing pressure
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 21, 2015

Some districts can’t find or hire music teachers while others struggle to buy and maintain instruments. Many administrators, meanwhile, must cut music classes to prepare students for testing.

Still, schools large and small have kept the music playing with innovative grants, online fundraising through sites like, and by scouring their budgets for any available resources.

When Superintendent Linda Wagner started in Anaheim City School District, there wasn’t a music program for any of the California district’s students and hadn’t been for “at least 20 years,” she says. So she set out to bring music instruction to every child in her elementary school district.

She began two years ago by teaming with a local symphony’s musicians for a new after-school program in which students at 14 schools learned how to read music. Because the district couldn’t afford instruments, the students, who met one day a week, played on cardboard and “in the air.”

When Wagner reached out to the community for donations, a police officer delivered a saxophone that he’d stored under his bed for years. A church drive yielded a battered U.S. Army bugle. In the 2014-15 school year, Wagner was able to hire three new music teachers, with all 24 district schools expected to add them by the 2017-18 school year.

“Music is too important to not be in the core system,” she says. “That’s where we’re heading. We want every child to have music education during the school week.”

Costs of creativity

The cost of music programsÑfrom marching bands to composition classesÑcan vary, but averages about $187 per student a year, according to a study from the National Association of Music Merchants, a nonprofit trade association.

Yet, based on conversations with music educators across the country, individual teachers may have just $300 a year to spend on discretionary items like sheet music or software, says Robin Hodson, vice president of sales and training for online music provider MusicFirst.

Academic proof in pudding

Superintendent Kristi Sandvik, who built a thriving music program in Arizona’s Buckeye Elementary School District, saw assessment scores rise among her students.

“When I got here six years ago, probably 20 to 30 percent of our kids were reading far below their grade level,” says Sandvik. “We’re now at less than 9 percent.”

About 1.3 million elementary school students in the United States don’t receive music instruction, according to the White House’s Turnaround Arts program. Yet 87 percent of teachers and 81 percent of parents believe students should have an opportunity to play an instrument in elementary school, according to a National Association of Music Merchants study.

Elementary school children who regularly attended music classes in Los Angeles USD showed “improvement in reading fluency,” and “increases in reading scores,” according to a two-year study from Northwestern University.

And class of 2012 college-bound students who took music scored 31 points above average in reading on the SAT, 23 points above average in math, and 31 points above average in writing, according to a 2012 College Board report.

Instruments for an orchestra or marching band are expensive, with districts paying between $600 and $1,500 for each one, says Ron Beaudoin, chief executive officer for National Education Music Co., a national instrument provider. Instruments get worn out and eventually have to be replaced, he adds.

Even Anaheim schoolsÑwhich operates on a combination of purchased and donated instrumentsÑstill needs a repair budget of about $250 a week, not counting expenses like horse hair to restring bows for violins and similar instruments.

Another expense is sheet music, which can cost about $50 to $100 per title for anything from Frozen’s “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” for the flute, to the full score for the “1812 Overture.” But once they pay for a license, a school district owns it for lifeÑa plus, as it allows schools to build up a library over time.

Teachers are the largest expense, accounting for 87 percent of a music program’s costs, says a 2011 study funded by the National Association of Music Merchants. Additional staff can also cost extra. At the Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona, a band director was hired part-time just to coordinate its district band. It cost the district $3,000, says Superintendent Kristi Sandvik.

Managing the band is akin to handling the schedule for multiple football or softball teams, Sandvik says. Concerts need to be organized, and the director determines which students can move up from a school band to the more prestigious district band.

Where to find funds

To bolster budgets, computer music suites can sometimes be paid for with technology funds. For $7,500, a high school can launch a complete music lab with 25 software-loaded computers that students can use to study composition, arranging, recording and producing, says John Mlynczak, the former director of education for PreSonus, a music equipment and software supplier.

Every high school in Maryland’s Baltimore County School District is getting a similar suite, adds Mlynczak, now director of educational technology for Noteflight, owned by music publisher Hal Leonard.


Allegro Rainbow
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation
Music for All
National Association of Music Merchants
National Educational Music Company
VH1 Save The Music Foundation

“In terms of technology spending, that’s a drop in a bucket for a district,” he says. “It’s about bridging the gap between what the administration and what music educators are looking for.”

GrantsÑfrom organizations such as Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and VH1 Save The Music FoundationÑare another resource. But before many foundations will give money, district leaders must often show a willingness to draw first from their own coffers and commit to a program.

For example, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which grants about $1.5 million to $2 million a year, requires a music teacher be in place for at least two years before they give a grant.

The VH1 Save The Music Foundation purchases instruments from neighborhood retailers, which are then delivered to schools. The grants are given only to K8 public schools that hire or maintain a music teacher.

The foundation believes a music teacher is necessary to get students to read sheet music or play an instrument. “Instruments are not going to do any good if kids don’t know how to hold them,” says Chiho Feindler, grantee and compliance manager for the VH1 program.

While the foundation has given $51 million worth of instruments over the past 18 years, the program will reclaim instruments from a school if a district cuts its music teacher.

Anaheim, a recipient of VH1’s grants, has six music teachers this school year, and plans to hire 18 more so each of the 24 schools has one by 2017-18. The district is using some of its $2.7 million in state lottery funds, says David Rivera, assistant superintendent of administrative services.

Committing public money can inspire private groups to make donations, says Mary Luehrsen, executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation, which helps districts find music funding and resources.

For instance, the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Music Makes Us program is a private/public alliance that receives approximately $1.2 million in private funds to augment the $14 million the music program receives from the district.

Nashville already had music and visual arts in its elementary school, and band, orchestra and chorus in some of its middle and high schools. In the last three years, the district hired at least one music teacher for every school, offered band in every middle and high school, and provided music classes in every elementary school.

Nashville’s Music Makes Us Director Laurie Schell credits Mayor Karl Dean with encouraging the city’s Metropolitan Council to approve and partially fund the music program.

Building takes patience

A district can’t revive a music program in a day or even a single school year. Decisions, funding and implementation take timeÑ often several years, says Luehrsen.

And fundraising alone isn’t going to provide a sustainable source of money for a high-quality music program. Like Anaheim and Nashville, districts need to be a bit creative in gathering support from city councils, parents, school boards and others in the community, she says.

“You’re not going to build and outfit a performing arts center in a year,” Luehrsen says, comparing a school district’s music program to a civic or private facility. “It starts with a commitment. You must find the money, and allocate the money, year after year.”

Lauren Barack is a freelance writer based in New York City.