Regress this: Some thoughts about the arts tax

Taxes, values and suspicion: a discussion of 26-146

Michael Sweerts, “The Drawing Class,” 1656-58

Now that my ballot has arrived in the mail, so fat and full of difficult questions, I’m back to thinking about Measure 26-146, which would restore regular arts education instruction to Portland’s primary grade students and increase access to the arts for all students and Portland’s “underserved communities.” The mechanism for this restoration and boost to accessibility is a $35 per year income tax, levied on all taxpayers who pay income tax, essentially everyone over the federal poverty level.

I’ve dealt with this arts tax before, in a couple of responses to  a couple of spectacularly dim editorials against the measure by The Oregonian (here’s another one). (The paper has now written no fewer than FOUR editorials against it, each just as empty as the last.) Although I intend to tick the yes box on the measure, I can think of reasonable objections to it, some of which I’ll get into in a bit. They just aren’t the ones enumerated by The Oregonian or their Brothers in Arms at Willamette Week, who aped their big brother’s arguments in their own recommendation for a no vote.

Of these, the one that I’ve heard most around town is the argument that the tax is regressive and therefore unsupportable, especially by liberals who support taxation according to the ability to pay. So I’m going to deal with that one first, mostly because it sets up the others so nicely.

(Conservatives oppose the measure because, hey, it’s a tax; they generally support flat tax rates. For The Oregonian, the regressivity argument is hypocritical, since they have little interest in progressive tax schemes—see their support for reducing capital gains taxes, for example.)

Regress This

If you asked me what was most regressive about the arts in Portland (and the U.S. in general), in the broadest sense, it would be that access is distributed so unevenly. Since our public schools abandoned arts education (in a series of decisions about cuts that I find foolish in the extreme), instruction in music, visual arts, theater and dance (let alone film, animation, multi-media) is available only to those who can afford private instruction for their children. The cost of arts events has gone up over the years, and though arts groups have created some important programs to make their work available at lower cost, the demographic information they’ve collected shows that their audiences are overwhelmingly older, whiter, more college-educated and wealthier than the public at large. ArtsWatch readers know this from personal experience, right?

So, the arts are unevenly distributed, and that’s what 26-146 addresses.

1. It distributes enough money to the school districts serving Portland students to provide one arts teacher for every 500 students (roughly), enough to guarantee regular instruction to all grade school students.

2. It distributes money to arts groups in the form of grants to provide access to arts events to students (from kindergarten through high school) AND to make their programs available to  “underserved communities.” I put that term in quotes because I find the term problematic in lots of ways, which we may get into later!

But, yes, the tax itself is regressive, small as it is. Why is that? I see no evidence that either The Oregonian or WW asked organizers of the measure at the Creativity Advocacy Network. I asked executive director Jessica Jarratt Miller why they’d decided not to raise everyone’s income tax rate by, say, .25 percent, which would have deflected the regressivity argument somewhat. (Or they could have added .15 at the lowest end, .25 in the middle and .35 at the top or some other scheme like that.)

Here’s what she said:

“Levying a rate-based income tax would have cost about $5M annually to collect (no matter how low the rate), and as we were aiming for $12M in net revenue, we determined that that was unacceptably high. Capping the income tax helped the cost of collections some but we were not able to get that cost down to 5% until we made it just two levels: $35 and $0.

Property taxes were not an option because Measure 5 limitations would not allow us to invest directly in schools and every sales tax option we explored was both more regressive and more expensive to collect with the added challenge of funded opposition.”

So, to maximize efficiency and avoid 40+ percent administrative costs, CAN accepted a flat tax. After all, the amount involved is very low, less than 10 cents a day. But instead of praising organizers for limiting costs and maximizing benefits, both The Oregonian and WW looked at the surface and declared it regressive (WW indirectly, The O with violins playing a sad song about how hard it is to make it on $25,000 a year).

They did NOT call either the library or school property tax levies regressive, however, though they are: Regardless of your income level, you must pay the same flat rate (not amount) on your property as your very wealthy neighbor. That’s the problem with flat rates, of course, but in the case of the library and the school levies, the amount of money involved to the average (or even poor) property taxpayer is more than 35 bucks. For someone with a home assessed at $150,000, the school bond costs $165. The library levy, because it replaces other levies, is harder to figure out, though in total I think it’s slightly more than than that. I am NOT arguing against those levies (I plan to tick the yes box on them, too, just FYI). I’m just saying they are both regressive AND more expensive than 26-146, and that neither The Oregonian nor WW pointed that out in their editorials, so this “regressivity” argument isn’t an absolute with them. (On the library measure, The O suggested a “no” vote, while WW endorsed the measure; both suggested a “yes” vote on the school bond.)

As with all taxes, the question is, what do we get for the money? Which is our next subject.

The Value of the Arts

I really hate when editorialists (and others) assume that citizens without a lot of money don’t value the arts, wouldn’t want to make sure their children were exposed to them, don’t want to make it themselves, don’t want to participate fully in the culture and all it offers. If the editorialist was making $25,000 a year and couldn’t afford private art classes for her kid, wouldn’t she be MORE likely to pony up 10 cents a day to make sure it happens in the classroom? I think so, yes, because that evens the playing field a little.  (Lower income Americans, as a side note, give more to charities proportionately than higher income Americans.)  And why would she do that? Because she understands the value of the arts.

And what IS the value? Well, we could go on at length about the importance of the arts in the culture, how truly central they are as carriers of wisdom and history, as models for innovation, as providers of shared experience, as facilitators of the development of common values. But for now we’ll just stick to education.

Students who receive regular arts instruction, several recent studies have shown (and we should add that we’re dealing with relatively small sample sizes in these studies) demonstrate greater proficiency at reading, math and writing than those who do not. They attend school more frequently and have fewer behavioral problems. They graduate at higher rates. They show greater proficiency in processing visual information. They feel more connected to their communities. And an NEA study this year said these effects were even more visible for poor students.

Both WW and The Oregonian ask, why fund the arts instead of science, math or reading and writing. Well, maybe because the curriculum of our schools has crawled back to those basics and it isn’t working very well. We barely teach the arts at all: 18 percent of Portland elementary students are taught visual arts (compared to 83 percent nationally); 58 percent receive musical instruction (compared to 94 percent nationally). In the past couple of years, Portland Public Schools has eliminated instruction of arts of any kind in all of its schools. So, yes, that’s why funding arts education makes sense: We are at zero and need to claw our way back.

Do I need to explain why the arts are especially critical in our emerging creative economy? I didn’t think so. But in opposing the tax, neither WW or The Oregonian mention it, either, and if you oppose the tax, you are obligated to talk either about what your replacement idea is or why preparing our kids for the creative economy isn’t important.

And ultimately, that’s the choice: Consign some very large number of Portland kids to a crippling gap in their education, or spend $35 and start to do something about it. No matter how much or little money you make, that’s a pretty easy one.

Distrust of the Arts

Willamette Week claims that it “loves the arts.” But then it also hates arts organizations. Or maybe hate is too strong a word? How about distrusts them? Decide for yourself:

“The backers have finger-painted this as all about education, but a sizable chunk of the money—possibly as much as half—would end up with nonprofit arts organizations such as the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Ballet Theatre, the Portland Art Museum and about 40 smaller groups. These organizations already have the means to raise funds; latching them onto the city’s spigot is unwise.”

They are connivers, these arts groups, just trying to figure out ways to rob the poor and “latch onto the city’s spigot.” And if you support this measure, you’ll help “support a night at the opera. Horsefeathers!”

So, let’s see. Yes, if the arts tax passes you WILL be supporting a night at the opera—for kids and people usually excluded from the opera because of its cost or other social reasons. WW is not telling the whole truth: The part of 26-146 that goes to arts groups is specifically for programs that make their work more accessible, according to the Voters’ Pamphlet explanation. It doesn’t go into the groups’ general fund. It doesn’t subsidize MY night at the opera, though it does make my night more enjoyable by opening the door to people who usually don’t get to come.

The Oregonian has similar reservations, and also refuses to come clean on what happens to the portion of the money that will go to arts groups:

“[The Creative Advocacy Network] for years pursued a dedicated public funding source for the area’s arts establishment. The group has shifted its focus to public school instruction because, presumably, voters are more likely to tax themselves to help kids than to keep museums and arts groups in operation. Yet such arts organizations, which the campaign treats almost as an afterthought, would get about half the take.”

Portland’s arts groups, even the largest of them, are not rich organizations, despite what WW wrote in an article earlier this month. Their endowments, if they have them at all, are tiny compared to those in other cities. If you talk to the staffers who run them, they really want to make their work available to more people. They, perhaps better than anyone, understand the effects it can have, both on individuals and the community as a whole. They’ve created a lot of little initiatives to reach out further into the community than they have before. And these days, that’s now both a city policy and a common desire in the community. But if we expect them to democratize their audiences, we need to help pay for that service.

We might have an argument about whether RACC is capable of sorting through outreach and accessibility grant proposals. And maybe even about what organizations can apply for those grants. I’m not sure what the rules will be, at this point, and I always disagree to some  extent with the assessments grant panels make of organizations and their proposals. I can’t help it! But the prior question is whether we think the tax addresses important questions about equity. We can start debating (and improving) the process if we decide we think it’s worth it.

I don’t recognize the people I know in the arts in the editorials of The Oregonian or WW. I haven’t noticed a plot by the “arts establishment” to corral money from innocent taxpayers, and believe me, I think I would have. I might have even supported such a plot—a plan based on Denver’s that would have funneled far more money into the arts and culture (including parks) than the paltry bit we currently give, for example. Of course, I would have insisted on the sort of community outreach that 26-146 demands as part of the deal. Didn’t WW and The Oregonian read that part of the tax proposal, the part about the money being used for accessibility projects? Are they just arguing dishonestly? They would have to answer that.

Better Ideas?

So, yes, we have a problem. And yes, 26-146 provides a solution that is reasonable and appropriate.

Are there other ways this could have gone? Sure. Here are a couple of them.

1. The school boards of the three school districts that include parts of Portland in them could have kept arts instruction from the very beginning. We could pressure them now to restore the cuts to those programs. Of course, we’d have to figure out a way to fund that restoration, and we’d become embroiled in the warring bureaucracies of those school districts. Although I’d prefer this, I have no confidence that the problem would be fixed by this sort of lobbying effort.

2.  The best way to democratize the arts—make them available to all—may be to establish neighborhood arts centers throughout the city, beginning with the very “underserved communities” 26-146 addresses, mostly in east Portland. They don’t have to be super expensive (they could be attached to or included in schools, libraries, planned into new developments, etc.), and they would serve (and be run by) the neighborhood directly. A mostly Hispanic neighborhood center might have more salsa going on than most other places or recite more Lorca (I’m just making stuff up, as you can tell). When the city’s arts groups visited the centers, they might tailor their programming appropriately. And if a great salsa band emerged (or a classical quartet—”El Sistema” is a Venezuelan invention) at the arts center, it might start playing at arts centers around the city. The emphasis would be on making and sharing every bit as much as on consuming. I could go on, but just look at the Multnomah Arts Center and imagine something like it scattered throughout the city,

CAN might have asked for ongoing support for the planning and establishment of arts centers, because that might well be the most profound way to address the fairness issue and the supply of arts instruction, AND to undermine the “arts are elitist” meme. We’re more likely to support things that are part of our daily lives than those that aren’t. Watching kids flock to the arts center with their instruments in hand is incredibly powerful. It’s also a powerful neighborhood development tool, but now I’m getting too deep into this.

How long would it take to establish a bunch of arts centers? How many hurdles, how many negotiations, how much money? And what about the kids in school right now, studying for their standardized tests? How would it help them?

See? I keep running into practical realities. So did CAN, when it started thinking about how to change the way we deal with the arts in Portland. The Oregonian and WW think of its adaptations as a weakness, as a sign of how self-serving it was. I see it as problem-solving. If we’re going to teach arts to our children, how can we do it? If we are going to increase accessibility to arts events, how can we do it? And if we can figure out a way, ultimately our arts organizations are served by this because they have more artists and informed audiences to draw from and a sense of belonging to a larger common purpose—namely the creation of our own culture.

Will you get your $35 worth? Will the benefits outweigh the cost, no matter how much you make and how important that $35 is to you? Well, that’s what the election is about. If you don’t think so, then by all means, vote against it. But don’t think there’s a big boondoggle going on. There isn’t.

I’ve been criticizing newspapers and their endorsements, so I’ll close with a pro-26-146 endorsement from the Mercury, mostly because their endorsements as a whole didn’t manifest the sanctimony and the snark of the others:

“Arts budgets are worth protecting in a special fund because theater, drawing, dance, and music are often the first sacrifices by schools and government when times get tough. But they’re an integral part of this city, they attract employers who want healthy schools, and they should be integral to students’ education—even though there are no “arts” bubbles to fill in on the standardized tests that sadly dictate curriculums.”

15 Responses.

  1. Thank you, this is a great article. I appreciate that you referred to east Portland. David Douglas and Reynolds have elementary through 12 music, and Reynolds HS has an amazing arts wing, just arts and music baby. Not too far west, in PPS but east Portland, there is very little. There really isn’t a difference in the kids, demographically- but man PPS kids are being slighted. My non-profit MAPP is offering after school general music at some of the elementary schools, and our classes fill up immediately. Kids want and NEED arts instruction- in the school day. I really want this measure to pass.

  2. Ron Buel says:

    barry: As someone who like you used to work at Willamette Week (and you at The Oregonian)I find your criticism telling. There is not a lot of thought going on at either place these days. A lot of reporting, a lot of writing, just not a lot of thought. Good work. You certainly convinced me.

  3. Mike Lindberg says:

    Barry,the most articulate analysis adn most persuasive cwe for voign yes that I have read yet. The oregonian editorails were an embarassment to them for their lack of rigourous thought adn rseach,..Thansk you . Mike Lindberg

  4. Mike Lindberg says:

    Wow, I guess it is late. . There is no excuse for the sloppiness of my comments.With 5 typos it was a mess but I hope those reading it can interpret the meaning. Case in point: I had little arts education in grade school in Astoria. Mike

  5. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you Barry, for this intelligent, well-informed screed. I have been wavering a bit on this measure, but after seeing OBT’s school show last Thursday, fully produced with live piano accompaniment for Apollo, and a most of the time thoroughly engrossed bunch of kids, even teenagers, I’m voting yes. I just hope the art and music teachers the measure will fund have practiced their art form as well as jumped through the gobbledy gook trimmed hoops to be certified as teachers, but that’s an entirely different discussion.

  6. Carole Barkley says:

    I still remember the thrill of seeing my first live stage production when I was in grade school and my class was bussed to a performance. My working-class parents never took me to the theater or the symphony or the ballet. My school opened the window onto a whole world I knew nothing about.

  7. JS May says:

    Well said.

  8. Eloise Damrosch says:

    Thank you for your eloquent and completely appropriate post, Barry. May many, many Portlanders read this and vote with their minds, convictions and visions for a better city full of enagaged and creative people of all ages.

  9. Barry Johnson says:

    Thank you for the comments, everyone. If the conversation about this measure is wide enough and informative enough, then it’s a win, no matter what happens, I think. So I guess I’m saying, “Keep talking!”

  10. Robyn U. says:

    Thank you so, so much for this article! As a teaching artist for O.B.T’s Education and Outreach Program, I firmly believe in the power of the arts. In an artistic climate, children can have extremely powerful experiences that can last a lifetime. Opportunities can be made for children to relate to each other in a new way, express themselves better, be more engaged in school, and to have greater dreams for themselves.

    Thank you for all you put into this! I appreciate all your efforts!

  11. Miriam Feder says:

    Thanks Barry. I was fortunate to have a lot of arts education in the public school (so I feel challenged to proofread.)I also do artistic residencies (theatre) in schools and can attest to the manifold value of the arts for students of all ages. I was shocked at the Oregonian’s recommendation and grateful for your careful analysis and the folks who have been linking it on Facebook. Well done!

  12. Luisa S says:

    Thank you, Barry. Your article is both insightful and passionate, something, no doubt, your own arts education inspired. As both a public school teacher and a theater artist I am so appreciate of your thoughtful arguments on this sadly necessary issue.

  13. Tim DuRoche says:

    Barry – you continue to encourage, cultivate and participate in the most reasoned and democratic discussion on the role of the arts in our civic ecology. Thank you. forget Montana, OAW may be the last best place.

  14. I was one of the people who helped get the one percent for art funded. It was the worst mistake I ever made! Why because it made funding available to academia and they push out all the unaffiliated artist and we got boring art in places it doesn’t belong.Places Like Baker city, Prineville. Sumpner, John day I don’t mind the modernest movements but most of it is uninspiring out of touch. Art picked by committee is normally inane at best.I have made a good living as an artist because I turned my back on the art community “I my self was never interested in living the life of the artist I was interested in making art” I do support this ballet measure. Education must include art because art serves business interest and industry at every level only a fool doesn’t recognize this.

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