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Teachers Call On MPS To Address Music Education Disparities

Emily Files
Reagan High School music teacher Erica Breitbarth leads her chamber choir students in a vocal warm-up. Breitbarth is one of the teachers lobbying MPS to rethink its music education system.

The MPS Board is expected to consider a proposal this fall that would raise minimum music requirements for schools. The proposal is the culmination of a year-long effort by teachers to increase student access to music education. 

On a recent morning, Ronald Reagan High School teacher Erica Breitbarth was leading her chamber choir students in a rehearsal of Edward Elgar’s 'As Torrents in Summer.'

“Sopranos! How long is a dotted half note?” Breitbarth gently scolded. “Love you, but you gotta count!”

On the other side of Milwaukee, at Rufus King High School, Ben Zabor directs about 50 advanced orchestra students in "Hungarian Dance No. 5" by Johannes Brahms.

"Sounds pretty good for the second week of school," he says. 

King and Reagan are both selective-admissions public schools. They have multiple full-time music teachers, along with student band, orchestra, and choir.

Credit Emily Files
A blackboard in Erica Breitbarth's classroom highlights the benefits of music education.

But that's not the case at most Milwaukee public schools, like Bradley Tech. The nonselective high school on the south side didn't have a music teacher last year. The school budgeted for one full-time position, but it went unfilled. Other high schools have one music teacher, but no music performance options like band and orchestra.

“We as educators who are at successful music schools couldn’t stomach anymore knowing that the school down the street didn’t have a program,” says Breitbarth. She has been with the district for 11 years and helped build Reagan’s music program from scratch.

Teachers Lobby For Change

Last year, Zabor and Breitbarth helped form the Milwaukee Music Educators Association, which is affiliated with the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. Their main goal in organizing was to close gaps in student access to music.  

Credit Emily Files
Rufus King music teacher Ben Zabor directs orchestra students in a morning practice. Zabor has been with MPS for 20 years, and says music education in the district has hit "rock bottom."

Zabor, who has worked in the district for 20 years, says music offerings have gradually declined.

"I want to use the word 'decimated,'" Zabor says. "But it doesn't have a strong enough meaning for what has happened to music programs in this city."

Last school year, MPS had 58 full-time music educators, some of whom were spread out among multiple schools. That’s a ratio of one full-time teacher to about every 1,200 students. MPS Fine Arts Manager Deborah Bowling says the number has increased this year — to 79 full-time music teachers.

"While it has been a rocky path, we are really seeing some increases in terms of teacher recruitment as well as schools that are increasing their music allocation," Bowling says.

Music Depends On School-Based Decisions

Milwaukee Public Schools' current system leaves a lot up to schools. Each building receives funding for, at minimum, a quarter-time music teacher. That pays for a teacher at the school one day a week. Some schools choose to put more money toward music, some don’t. Reagan teacher Breitbarth says that contributes to inequalities.

"The successful music programs that exist in MPS are where principals have chosen to allocate funds far beyond the district allocation because they believe that arts matter, which creates an equity problem," Breitbarth says. "Because it means that it's basically the principal's prerogative to have or not have music as opposed to every student deserves to have music."

Fine Arts Manager Bowling says schools should be able to choose what to prioritize.

"I think all arts are important. I think to just to look at music is really unfair to the other curricular areas," Bowling says. “Visual art, and theater, and dance and all of those things should be offered to all of those schools. And our school communities need to have a choice to select those things as well."

Credit Emily Files
Rufus King students have access to band, orchestra and choir. Most MPS high schoolers do not have the same music choices in their schools.

Bowling says recruitment is a challenge. That’s why, a few years ago, MPS launched the "Fill the Gaps" initiative. It allowed schools with music or art vacancies to contract with organizations like the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and Arts at Large. According to MPS, more than 40 schools used contracts for music education last year, at a cost of more than $1 million.

Teachers like Breitbarth and Zabor say the program made it too easy to supplant certified educators with private contractors.

But the Fill the Gaps Program is ending this year, according to Bowling.

“Unfortunately, we have been directed that that’s not an option,” Bowling says. “So that’s going to be a very interesting and challenging conversation …We’re going to have to come up with some alternative opportunities for our students because that takes away a large community partnership we’ve had in the past.”

MPS has not said why the program is ending now. But the contracts were facing scrutiny from school board members. 

"Music isn't something that should be extra or separate." - Rufus King Music Teacher Ben Zabor

Teachers Breitbarth and Zabor think MPS could more easily recruit music educators if it changed quarter-time positions that exist at dozens of schools to half-time or full-time jobs. They’re lobbying the school board to adopt a new policy that would expand the number certified music educators across the district. 

MPS Board President Larry Miller tells WUWM that in theory, he’s supportive. But Miller says he would first need to understand how the district would pay to implement the new policy.

Zabor, at Rufus King High School, hopes this will be a turning point for music education in MPS. 

“Music isn’t something that should be extra or separate,” he says. “It’s something that helps bind together the rest of the education that kids receive.”

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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