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Monday, September 17, 2012

Is the Arts Levy a Benefit to Portland or a Burden?

Posted by Fiona Smith on Mon, Sep 17, 2012 at 10:14 AM

Things are slowly heating up in the campaign around Measure 26, the "Arts Education and Access Fund" ballot measure that aims to restore arts funding in Portland’s six school districts this November. The measure was officially okayed for the ballot on September 4th.

It may come as a surprise that despite Portland's thriving arts and culture scene, Portland schools have a way-below-average number of art classes compared to other school districts nationwide. The question voters need to consider is: The proposed fund will improve arts education in schools, but is it a fair way to fund the arts?

The proposal, put together by School and Arts Together and the Creative Advocacy Network (CAN), would charge Portland residents who are over 18 a tax of $35 a year and direct the money to a fund for arts and music programming in elementary schools. People with an income below the federal poverty line are exempt from the tax. If passed, the tax would raise $12.8 million annually for schools' arts and culture programs.

Backers say the fund will pay for an art teacher in every elementary school. In addition, it will ensure there are significantly more art classes in schools, either by the school itself or an outside arts organization, such as the Right Brain Initiative.

“The most significant cuts to arts education happened at the elementary school level,” says Jessica Jarratt Miller, Schools and Arts Together Campaign Manager and Executive Director of CAN. While every middle and high school in Portland has some kind of arts and music education at every level, the lack of arts education at a young age has left new middle and high school students unprepared for arts and music programs at higher levels.

On the flip side, critics of the tax say that it will hurt low-income people because of its poor design. Since the tax is the same dollar amount for everyone, it's regressive—meaning that $35 will hit someone with a near-poverty income harder than someone with a larger figure income. Economist Eric Fruits and Portlander Robert Clark went so far as to challenge the ballot title last July, saying the title was misleading. Fruits wanted the measure language to read, "Creates retroactive permanent poll tax on Portland residents." However, a judge disagreed and the measure is staying on the ballot with minor changes to the title. The question asked of voters on the ballot will be: "Shall Portland restore arts, music for schools and fund arts through income tax of 35 dollars per year?"

Despite opposition, the campaign remains optimistic. Jarratt Miller says they've done three separate polls on whether Portlanders will support the $35-a-year tax and had more than 70 percent of respondents say "yes" every time. However, these polls will not be made public.

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