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Singing the Praises of Music Education

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Most Americans know about weapons of mass destruction. Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, wants all Americans to become familiar with weapons of mass instruction.

Just what are these WMIs? Music and arts education for all public school students, to be exact. Huckabee joined Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), another champion of arts education, and Kiff Gallagher, founder and CEO of the Music National Service Initiative, at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday to not only talk about the importance of music education and national service, but to demonstrate their commitment.

“Here at CAP, we believe you shouldn’t just talk about [music], you should listen to it,” said John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center. And listen the audience did. Huckabee and Crowley took the stage to perform the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” with the governor on bass guitar and the congressman on vocals and guitar.

The performance bridged “normal divisions in politics,” in Huckabee’s words, but so did the conversation. The accountability standards of the No Child Left Behind Act have dominated public education in recent years, in some cases squeezing out music and arts education. But both Crowley and Huckabee regard this change as a mistake.

Music education is a necessity for several reasons. Said Crowley, “You never hear of anyone going to war over music.” And according to Huckabee, “one of the few things that can build bridges is the arts.” What’s more, music and arts education can unleash creativity in kids and improve their cognitive abilities to learn in other subjects, such as math.

American students will need to learn not just what they need to know for standardized tests, but also how to think in order to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy. “The future economy is a creative economy,” said Huckabee. “We’re going to have a strong economy if we have a strong arts emphasis.”

One way in which music education will soon be integrated into more schools is through Kiff Gallagher’s Music National Service Initiative. MNSi will deploy its first Musician Corps—akin to a “musical Peace Corps”—in the summer and fall of 2009 into pilot programs in underserved schools and communities in several cities.

Gallagher was one of the original staff involved in launching the AmeriCorps program 15 years ago, and he sees MusicianCorps as a natural extension of national service. The program aims to use “music to address social goals,” while also “[injecting] music into the debate around national service programs.”

This program would go a long way toward solving the problem of “how, as we move forward with accountability and high standards, we can keep a place for music in our schools,” as Robert Gordon, senior fellow at CAP, said in his introduction. Crowley, who is one of several musicians in Congress, predicts “endless opportunities” for a MusicianCorps made up of professional musicians and artists.

In these tough economic times, extra money for music and arts education may seem like a tough sell to local schools that are forced to cut budgets. Paying a credentialed music teacher may seem out of reach while there is so much pressure to improve test scores in basic subjects like reading, math, and science. Yet as governor, Huckabee mandated that all schools in Arkansas provide music and arts education with a credentialed teacher.

Now that he’s working on a national scale, in an even tougher climate, how does Gov. Huckabee sell music and arts education to skeptics? In his words, it’s “not a nice program if we can afford it. It’s an essential program we can’t afford not to have.”

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