MUSICAL MUSINGS: Block Grants and You!

By Scott Rieker

Choir Director, Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church 

402-202-8435 (cell)




In July, I had the opportunity to teach at a summer music camp in Santa Monica. While some of the attendees were from a low socioeconomic background, most came from affluence and could afford the $1,000 cost of attendance. In fact, some students only attended part of the camp, as they were also attending camps for sailing, the study of Chinese art, and more. It is a credit to these students’ parents that they provided such opportunities for their children. It is also a testament to their bank accounts that these opportunities were even within the realm of consideration.


I have friends who sincerely believe that these sorts of “summer enrichment” are just that: enrichment; that they are the prerogative of the well-to-do, and that folks of lesser means should work harder, so to receive the benefits at some time in the future. When pressed about music during the school year, these same friends become less articulate. “Of course everyone should have music, but some districts just can’t afford it.” Or, “well, music is fine, as long as they get core subjects first.” In translation: “Wealthy school districts should continue to offer multiple high-quality music opportunities, and poorer districts will just have to ‘make do’ with what they have. It’s the natural order.”


Music is that one activity which we humans do in community that differentiates us from every other species on the planet. It allows us to come into contact with the generations who have gone before us while building up our common humanity by making music together. Because of its uniqueness (unlike the [admittedly vital] “core” subjects of math, reading, etc., which are demonstrated by other species) music is essential to every child’s growth and development. It is essential to every adult, as well. Music becomes a civil right, and children’s musical opportunities should not be dictated by their ZIP code.


Incredibly (since we expected something in the neighborhood of $0), the House Appropriations Committee has chosen to fund $1B (of the $1.65B authorized) for federal block grants that could be used to support music education as part of the “Well-Rounded Education” included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA—the successor to No Child Left Behind). There is still the wrangling expected with the Senate and a necessary Presidential signature, but these block grants appear to be well on their way into existence. This means that every child in America now has a portion of $1 billion to ensure that they are provided with music education (which, not coincidentally, is specifically enumerated in ESSA).


If I were still teaching in my old district, I could almost assure you that such block-grant money would be spent on hiring data analysts, hiring “transformational leadership coaches,” training staff on assessment, and purchasing test-preparation software, which are all valid uses of the block grant. You see, block grants from Title IV, Part A, can be used for support of any aspect of education: not just the arts. So, that money will just sit there, or perhaps be funneled to something else, if we choose not to act.


What can you (must you) do?

  • Read this:
  • Contact your neighbors/friends/parents/children and explain a little about block grants, and why their advocacy is essential. (Contact Scott for more information:
  • Contact the school district and insist that the funds from the Title IV, Part A block grants be used for music education, which is specifically enumerated as part of a “Well-Rounded Education” in ESSA.
  • Consider making statements on social media or to “the media.”


Consider this: Under NCLB, schools were “blamed and shamed.” Every school tested students in math and reading, and then their aggregate scores were posted in a “report card.” Schools were ranked, teachers and administrators fired, test-preparation programs replaced legitimate curriculum, and children became the means to achieve high test scores. Surprise! You could predict the outcome by ZIP code.


Consider this: Under ESSA, there will be some metric for reporting schools’ “success,” but it will be developed at a more local level. Can you imagine if that new “report card” listed the opportunities for music education that a school provides? Can you imagine the uproar when parents from poorly resourced schools demand to know why their children don’t deserve the same music education that the resource-rich schools provide? Can you imagine the looks on policy-makers’ faces when they are held accountable for failing to provide a specifically enumerated subject, or have only provided it in a token way?


Our children deserve to be educated as whole children, not as test-takers, math machines, reading scores, and burgeoning consumers. The federal block grants under ESSA’s Title IV, Part A provide an opportunity to begin to rectify the societal inequality in education that has been foisted upon us for decades in the name of “small government” and “accountability.” But this opportunity only exists if we claim it as our own; advocate for it as our right; demand that policy-makers reflect the will of those they serve: provide a meaningful, sequential music education for every student, taught by a certified, qualified teacher within the confines of the school day. This is our birthright as human persons. To arms!



The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) is spear-heading the advocacy around the Title IV Part A block grants. They also offer an online tool that you can use to painlessly contact your members of Congress to express your support of this essential component of music education. Here is what NAfME recently said:
Congress is approaching the finish line in the appropriations process soon, and we need YOU, our music advocates, to contact your members in Congress today and urge them to support music education and maximize funding for Title IV, Part A. 
Head to NAfME’s new Grassroots Action Center:
There you can use our advocacy tool to send a letter to your members in Congress and ask them to support music education and fully fund the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants!
Act today!