I first wrote about this a few years ago. With the recent budget challenges facing public education and the strain on many of our school districts now is a great time to review tis idea one more time.

There is an emerging trend that, until recently, had been isolated to California (Redwood City, Concord, and dozens of others). This trend has now started to pop up in school districts across the country. I call it The Parent Trap.

 To illustrate the point here is an actual email I received from someone that illustrates the point:

I am a parent in a NY school district, and although I no longer have anyone in the elementary school I am worried. Our school's budget recently failed and cut from the school program was our music program in our Elementary schools. Our Board of Ed says that if we can raise $170,000 in donations, grants or scholarships we will be able to restore our elementary music program.

Did you see what just happened? In a two-step move the school district has now shifted the responsibility to fund a core subject, music, from the school board to the parents.

This is The Parent Trap. And more and more parents and concerned citizens, with the good intentions of trying to keep their music programs alive, are falling for it. What happens?

The minute a school district is able to shift the responsibility to fund a program from the district to the parents… THEY WILL NEVER TAKE THE RESPOSNIBILITY BACK.


If You Don’t Pass this Budget, We’ll Kill This Music Program

The Parent Trap really is a two-step process: 

First, using nearly the same strategy as highlighted in the January 1973 cover of National Lampoon "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog" – school administrators will bundle a popular program (in this case music) with other less popular budget items in a referendum in order to get the budget passed. The veiled and unstated threat: If You Don’t Pass This Budget, We’ll Kill This Music Program. It is interesting to note that we have never seen any other core subject placed on a budget referendum… EVER!

By placing the music program into a budget referendum the school system has now absolved themselves of their responsibility to fund music. If the budget passes, they get the money for all their other programs and the music program stays. If it fails, the school administration now has the “cover” to kill the program by saying this is what the community chose. This is a false assumption –it is not the music programs people are opposed to… people are opposed to more taxes.

If You Want It So Badly… YOU Pay for it!

So, what happens when the budget fails? School officials will show how disappointed they are when the budget fails. They will say how much they support the music program (if they really supported music they would not have put it out on the budget limb in the first place). Then, with a simple suggestion, comes step two in our trap: “If you can raise the (insert budget amount here) from the community we will put the music program back.”

The trap has now been successfully executed. Not only has the school administration passed the buck by pointing to the budget failure as “a community decision” to cut the music program … they have now fully shifted the burden to funding the program, or not, to the parents and concerned citizens in the community.

Parents, already deeply disappointed by the loss of the music program, and out of a natural desire to provide this valuable educational experience for their children, jump at this chance for a solution. They organize, create community foundations, do fundraising and attempt to keep the music program as an initiative funded by DONATIONS.

While this may solve the IMEADIATE problem for the parents… IT IS NOT A VIABLE LONG TERM SOLUTION FOR THE PROGRAM. Having the music program (a core subject under federal law and education policy in many states) now solely funded based on the community’s ability to fundraise will, in most cases, lead to the eventual loss of the entire program. The school system no longer has a stake in the program. It is now community funded. It is not the school districts problem anymore!



Is there a way to avoid the trap? Absolutely. Here’s how:

  1. Monitor Your School Budget Process – Assign someone from the community (it should not be the music teacher – preferably a parent) to attend the school board meetings to monitor the budget process. Many people do not follow the budget process until a budget is presented to the public. Many of the decisions impacting the budget are made during school board meetings months in advance (STARTING NOW!). Having someone at these meetings provides an “early warning” system in case there are budget problems that could put the music program at risk.
  2. Get Organized – Gather a group of concerned parents to always be on alert to help support the program. This is key. Have this group set-up an email communication system to keep people informed. Being proactive in the budget process and in support of the music program is a much better position for parents instead of organizing as a reaction to a sudden crisis. If you organize before a crisis you will be better prepared to address one and can head off potential problems early on. Go to http://supportmusic.com and download the Community Action Kit to get started!
  3. Do Not Let Music Get Isolated – Fight any effort to position the music program as a potential casualty of a failed budget vote. If cuts are going to be proposed the district should focus on all non-child centered areas before suggesting cuts to core subjects. If they plan to show potential cuts, core subjects should be treated equally/fairly. The burden should be shared. No subject should be singled out. No subject should be left behind (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
  4. Do Not Suggest Program Cuts – The last thing you want to do is to create a rift in the community by suggesting cuts to other programs. Advocate for your programs not against someone else’s. Suggest cuts to administration and non-child centered areas. You want to maintain your position of music as a core subject. Take the high road.
  5. Avoid the Music or Math type of Comparison– Often school officials will say, “We have to choose between music and math.” No… they don’t. The have CHOSEN to make this comparison. In reality, this is a false dichotomy, an illusion of their own making. They could just as easily make the choice between music and a new administrator. Or music and new stadium lights. Or music and the lunch program. By pretending the choice is between music and math, music or reading, music or science, the administrators are being disingenuous to the parents… because this is really only a choice because THEY made it a choice.
  6. When All Else Fails Try to Pass the Budget – So you did your best but music ended up on the budget referendum chopping block. Your next option… try to pass the budget. At least if you are successful in passing the budget the game will end right here. Your program will be saved and you will live to fight another day


I’m In The Trap … How Do We Get Out?

Your ultimate goal here is to stay out of the trap. What do you do if the budget fails and you get the “If you can raise the money we will keep the music program” comment like our parent from Islip?


As any parent knows… you cannot reward bad behavior. By rushing in to let the school district off the hook for their bad behavior you are, in essence, rewarding them.

Now, if you really want to try to fund the program through donations then there is only one way to do this that will lead to a long-term benefit. Create a contract with the school district. The essence of which is:

Provide temporary funding for the music program ONLY if the school district acknowledges this program is part of the district’s responsibility and the funding will be rightfully restored to the budget over a defined period of time. Request the district put up some money the first year (say 10-25%). Then 50% in the second year. Then 100% the third year. The program will still need to be treated as part of the basic education and be graded as any other subject and the teacher will need to be treated as an employee of the district (not the parents!)

This now puts the community in partnership with the school district to help the district out of a budget bind but also keeps them on the hook for what is their rightful responsibility: providing educational instruction for our children in ALL core subjects. This also lets the community know this is a short-term problem with a long-term solution. This is critical to the overall viability of the music program. 

A final note – In one school district in California the parents had been paying for the entire band program (teacher and all) through the local community foundation. One day the superintendent told the parents they could no longer pay for the music program. The parents were forced to turn over any funds raised for music to him. His reasoning? “I am responsible for setting the educational priorities of our district. I should be able to spend these funds to support my priorities. Music is not one of them.”

So, the program is now gone, the parents are out all the money they raised, and the children are denied the benefits of being involved with music. This is a lose, lose, lose situation. The children are the ones who lose the most.

When we allow our school districts to absolve themselves of providing music education as a core subject for all of our children… Nothing Good Ever Happens.

Do not let the Parent Trap happen to you!


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