The Oregonian on the arts tax: Blinders on!

Albert Anker, The Village School in 1848/Wikimedia

When we write, we reveal what we don’t know every bit as much as what we do know. Good writers convince the reader to focus on the latter, instead of dwelling on the miserable former, and they do it by demonstrating that they know their subject well. They’ve done their research; they’ve had original thoughts; they’ve tested those thoughts against the reality they’re trying to describe. Of course, some writers are gifted with an unusual command of verbal pyrotechnics and rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and they can sometimes conceal the truth that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The Oregonian’s editorial page these days, since it has become a bastion of Libertarian fantasy, er, hoo-ha, um, ideology, is all about what the writers don’t know. And no, they don’t have the rhetorical splendor to camouflage their poor descriptions of our world and their even poorer prescriptions for it.

I’m going to take a look at the newspaper’s most recent editorial against the proposed Portland art tax, its third by my count, because I’m interested in that subject for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean that the same ideological blinders don’t affect other topics the newspaper considers. We could analyze other editorials and find the same aversion to research, original thought and testing of propositions.

So, let’s dive right in, shall we? What are we talking about?


The ballot measure that The Oregonian is campaigning against with such ferocity (and so disdainfully) adds $35 to the income tax for each adult income-earning Portland resident. Individuals in households below federal poverty level pay no tax. The money raised this way, around $12 million, will be used to hire arts and music teachers for grades K-5 in schools serving Portland students, and it will be used to increase access to the arts for students in grades K-12 and in underserved communities in general.

The background for the measure is pretty well established, right? Oregon (as of 2007-2008, the most recent year for which the National Center for Education Statistics has data) spends slightly less than the national average on education per pupil ($11,156 to $11,965 in ’07-’08).  The amount of arts education offered has declined dramatically here over the years, as the state has struggled to reach an agreement about how to fund schools in general.  Other states went through the same corrosive political debate (you can easily guess which side Libertarians were on, since the Libertarian position is that schools should be voluntary associations—how 17th century of them!), but Oregon, for various reasons, none of them good for students, cut the arts more than most.

According to a 2012 arts education study released by US Department of Education and expanded by the Creative Advocacy Network, 94 percent of US schools offered music instruction; in Portland it was 58 percent. Worse, 83 percent of US schools offered visual art education, and in Portland, it was 18 percent. And yet worse, 28 percent of Portland public schools offered no arts education at all. Why is all of this bad? Because the many studies that measure arts education and overall education achievement are conclusive: arts education matters, especially among at-risk students.

So, the arts tax ballot measure is an attempt to address a particular problem. The Oregonian’s editorials don’t provide any of this background. They act as though this particular initiative is coming out of the blue, for no reason whatsoever, except possibly to gull the unwary into adding $35 to their annual income tax burden. It makes me laugh even to type that…  But yes, all of this is what their editorial demonstrated that they don’t know.

 But let’s head to the editorial itself, which is also laughable!


It starts by bemoaning the decision by Multnomah County Circuit Judge John Wittmayer that the arts tax isn’t a poll tax, saying he offered little explanation, and according to The Oregonian’s (apparently very limited) understanding of “poll tax,” he was wrong. Wittmayer explained quite succinctly why the ballot measure isn’t actually a poll or head tax: It doesn’t apply to everyone (only to those who pay income tax and whose income is above the Federal poverty line).  Period. It’s simply a matter of definition. What’s not to understand?

And in this country, in any case, we use the term “poll tax” almost exclusively to mean a tax applied to voters when they vote, a nefarious practice used in the South (mostly) to keep the participation of African Americans down (voter suppression/discrimination is still with us, of course, though it now can’t take this particular form). Is Wikipedia available at The Oregonian? It would have certainly helped their “understanding” of the poll tax.


Then, the editorial takes on the “regressive” nature of the tax—specifically, that everyone eligible to be taxed will pay the same amount. They call it “breathtakingly regressive.”  I might accept this characterization from people who actually believe in progressive taxation: Naturally, The Oregonian wants to reduce Oregon’s capital gains tax, which would make a tax system that is truly “breathtakingly regressive,” even worse. The Oregonian doesn’t seem to be concerned with regressivity unless it suits them. “Inconsistency” is the nicest way to characterize this trait.

Still, I grant that that the tax, though very tiny no matter how the editorial tries to inflate its importance, is by definition regressive. But the question is, will the return on that $35 investment be worth it, especially for the individuals and families who are close to the border of the poverty line?

That’s an argument that organizers have to make. Given the statistics on the effects of arts education on low-income students and the access to arts events that the ballot measure will ensure for under-served communities, I think they can make a pretty good case that it is. Higher-income families can make sure their children receive arts education classes outside of school, and they can take their kids to concerts, plays, exhibitions, readings and give them any other cultural experience they want. Lower-income families can’t. The $35 helps to level the playing field (the very opposite of “regressive”).

But I’m not here to argue for the arts tax, specifically. I’m in “explanatory mode.” And “debunking mode.” And in that spirit, I will continue!


The editorial continues with something the editorial board knows is inflammatory: “You could argue that hiring some more math and science teachers would serve kids better than bumping up instruction in comparatively low-priority subjects.” Dear Oregonian, Studies show that students who receive regular arts instruction do better in science and math! Especially, at-risk students.

Remember what I said about blinders in the beginning? The Oregonian editorial board apparently has no idea how dependent the metro area has become on the intersection of its technology, design and arts sectors. And arts education is absolutely critical to anyone who wants to become part of this increasingly crucial area of our economic (and social) life. Portlanders, according to recent surveys conducted by the Creative Advocacy Network, the sponsor of the measure, agree overwhelmingly about this. The arts aren’t just about surrounding ourselves with pretty things and sounds: They make us better problem solvers in a wide range of activities. But you can’t see this if you are blindly applying Libertarian principles to tax measures.


And then the editorial closes with a brief, relatively inept description of the history of CAN (along with a bad pun: Boy, is The Oregonian un-funny!), and its change of direction. Indeed, CAN started as a way to think about funding the area’s cultural organizations. I thought it might consider something along the lines of Denver’s very successful model (which is based on a sales tax, just for the record). But subsequent investigation revealed that Portlanders recognized and were interested in fixing the problem in arts education more than anything else. And CAN shifted its focus.

Instead of praising this adaptation to reality, the editorial writers have decided that it was somehow misleading to change the original focus. And toward the end of the editorial they mischaracterize the measure: It isn’t to generate a “whole lot of money for arts groups,” actually. It’s to help arts groups provide more access to their programming for more people. Its use is restricted.

Now, I think giving a “whole lot of money”—twice or three times what CAN will generate—directly to arts groups, right into their operating budget, isn’t a bad idea. I think the return on that investment could be amazing. But that’s not what this measure is about. By attempting a little three-card monte, The Oregonian maybe wants to make you think it is, because at one time that was a possibility. But ask any arts administrator in town about it though, and you’ll learn that this isn’t the investment in arts groups The Oregonian suggests that it is.


But then talking to an arts administrator about this proposal would constitute “research,” wouldn’t it? Just like seeking out studies about the effects of arts education on student achievement, especially for low-income students. And what if the research deflected you from your purpose, which is to express Libertarian principles? Here’s what the editorial was leading toward, the last sentence:

“Those who value the work arts organizations do should donate money, and those who dislike local schools’ spending priorities should talk to the school boards.”

The perfect, simple Libertarian answer to everything. It could even extend to public education itself, couldn’t it? Deep down, The Oregonian editorial implies that we shouldn’t be allowed to vote on CAN’s measure at all, which I suspect is the reason they embraced the crazy poll tax argument in the first place.

But since we live in a democratic republic, CAN is allowed to try to pass a ballot measure to fund the things it thinks are necessary for the community. And that’s exactly what they are trying to do. And if you think the problem is worth solving and the $35 solution isn’t worse than the problem, you might even join them in voting for it.  That’s how we do it here, at least for now.







3 Responses.

  1. john thoren says:

    That was and excellent article. I wonder if the Oregonian would consider it in it’s “letters to the editor”.

    Thank you for setting this all out with good evidential links.

  2. Jakub says:

    We (SpaceCraft:Mission to Arts) have had two stories written on our current project, The Albina Yard Mural, by two separate reporters from the Oregonian. We have yet to see a story come from the Oregonian that can represent our project well.

  3. Tim DuRoche says:

    Good Explainin’, Barry! So much for the daily-we of old-growth media to present the big picture.

    Can I add to your pile and stoke the conversation a bit?

    One simple way to look at this is to chart the disconnect between what we say we want and what we are choosing to prioritize. The crisis narrative for education and the ripples of economic stability, civic health, workforce trends and basic health and human happiness is clear.

    In 1990 state HS completion rates were 89.6% by 2009 they’d plummeted to 68% (43% in Multnomah County). In the class of 2009, a full 28 percent of the students dropped out — that’s over 14,000 students. Some estimates say this will cost the state almost $3.5million dollars in lost wages over their lifetime. There’s a frightening economic stat for you.

    Let’s think about our goals for Portland as a global city rife with innovation and sustainable solutions for a sec. The world in which today’s students will be involved is rapidly changing. As Jackson Pollack says “new needs need new techniques.” Yet we find our schools and classrooms ignoring the tsunami of evidence and continuing to prioritize teaching to the test and reading, math over skills that can build creative, civic, and global literacy—skills that will better equip young people to create, lead, invent, navigate, collaborate and re-envision the future.

    Here’s some handy data for you, Oregonian, that paints a very rigorous picture of how arts in schools improves engagement and equity:
    James Catterall’s Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art: The Effects of Education in the Visual and Performing Arts on the Achievements and Values of Young Adults, tracked students from eighth grade through their twenties and found that “arts-engaged” students from low-income families demonstrated greater college-ongoing rates and better grades in college—more specifically, low-income students from arts-rich high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students from arts-poor high schools and students engaged in the arts were more likely to be employed in jobs with long-term career potential and more inclined toward civic engagement.

    We’re not talking about making everyone artists—we’re talking about teaching habits of mind that help in every other facet of life. Yes we also want art for arts sake because —pure and simple —it makes us happier, healthier more expressive people. Arts in schools (and in homes as family activities, after school, etc.) buoy not only achievement, but engagement, inclusion, integration and –more over aspiration. Who do we want to be as a community and a nation? Who will your neighbors, employees, clients, public be? How informed will their choices be? Citizenship benefits.

    It’s in Portland’s DNA:
    In the 1930s, Anna Belle Crocker, the first curator-director of the Portland Art Museum wrote that the connection between education, the arts and the whole child, “goes deeper than we think.” She called for, “a balanced design for education; a plant that while spreading technical knowledge and widening the use of the tools of reason, does not choke nor lead astray the spring of creative intuition but keeps it clear.”

    And here in Portland, we know how to fix things (we did it with transportation, land-use planning, and we can do it with education).  This is a community that has thrived on civic agency— “the capacity to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems across our differences of view.” 

    It’s our kids we’re talking about here, after all.

    Michael Jonas recently wrote in CommonWealth, “The single biggest challenge facing education reform efforts is taking innovative practices and conditions that show remarkable results in a handful of schools and bringing them to scale.”   We see the research, we say we want innovation, better graduation rates, improved social capital, happier kids, fewer people needing social services and corrections. We know what we want, where the difference is made, so why are still thinking so one-dimensionally about our treasured multi-dimensional children?

    It’s not just about money, it’s about priorities.  Bill Ivey, former head of the NEA frames it perfectly, for us.  “if we were to place fresh emphasis on the pursuit of happiness as good public policy we need to identify a set of achievable interventions that can move us ahead, not back. . .if we ask ourselves, ‘what can make the biggest difference in our quality of life for the most people over the longest time for the least expense?’ It would seem that a reworking of our current system to enhance young people’s access to arts, culture and the humanities is an achievable, affordable goal.”

    Benjamin Barber once said, “Imagination is the link to civil society that art and democracy share. When imagination flourishes in the arts, democracy benefits.” I do believe we’re still a democracy, however the American Dream is suffering because our schools are struggling to produce a new generation of dreamers.

    Keep asking the questions and calling ’em out, BJ! Long live John Dewey.

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