Portlanders said yes to a $35 annual tax to grow more arts education in public schools
Funding for arts education is a hot topic for most cities. Unfortunately, when budgets are out of balance, the arts are first to suffer. Certainly, while many communities recognize it as a problematic pattern, Portland residents are actually doing something about it.
Arts education tax
In November of 2012, Portland voters (by an impressive 62%), approved the city’s new “Arts and Education Access Fund.” This “arts tax” was introduced by The Creative Advocacy Network and heavily supported by Portland’s mayor at the time, Sam Adams.
While the word “tax” often strikes fear and resistance in the hearts of citizens, the residents of Portland recognized that the increase only amounted to about $35 per household per year. In exchange, $10 million per year are earmarked for arts education.
Arts education – monitoring results
While the City of Portland is responsible for collecting the taxes and administering the funds, a committee of independent citizens oversees the expenditures, evaluates needs, and monitors the progress and outcomes of the program.
Thanks to the new arts tax, every K-5 school in each of Portland’s six school districts is ensured at least one art, music, or dance teacher on staff and one arts specialist for every 500 students. As a result, nearly 100 arts professionals are working full-time in Portland to preserve and promote the arts to children.
The Regional Arts and Culture Council receives the rest of the proceeds from the art tax to invest in nonprofit arts organizations, grants to increase arts access for Portland residents, and additional support for Portland’s art specialists and art education programs.
Arts education – Portland schools lead the way
In Portland’s David Douglas High School, 73 percent of students come from families with household incomes low enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch (which is a federal poverty measurement). In addition to employing full-time music teachers, the school offers discounted music rentals, a library of sheet music, and avenues to gain access to free or lower-cost music lessons.
The combination of public support and thoughtful action at schools like David Douglass has opened doors for students who may have otherwise never had access to art and music programs.
Tom Muller, David Douglas’ music coordinator, recognizes the importance of arts education in schools, saying, “We try never to restrict anything because a kid has a financial need.”
He has also seen a positive response from students in the form of a strong work ethic and enthusiastic participation.
“They understand there’s a lot of schools in more affluent neighborhoods, but we’re playing at a pretty high level, singing at a pretty high level. The kids just work.”
Divisiveness and exclusion seem to permeate the news. However, cities like Portland are working actively to change the narrative. As the city promotes arts education programs to celebrate inclusion, creativity, and teamwork, other cities can look to their example and follow suit.
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.