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Voters to Weigh New Tax for Arts Education in Portland, Ore.

By Erik W. Robelen — October 24, 2012 2 min read

You might expect Portland, Ore., with its thriving arts scene and generally left-of-center politics, to be among the U.S. cities most likely to pony up a little extra cash for arts education.

That supposition will be put to the test Nov. 6, when its residents will be asked to vote on whether to pay higher taxes for the cause.

But before you place your bets, I should mention a couple of factors. First, the city ballot measure in question makes no distinction between millionaires and the barristas at the local coffee shop. All adults would pay $35 per year (except those living below the federal poverty line). This has led some liberals to attack the tax plan as regressive.

Second, as some readers may be aware, Oregon loves its ballot measures, and true to form, this year voters will be asked to consider a lot of them. So the denizens of “Portlandia” will have to keep straight a series of state and local measures, including several others with financial implications. There will be nine statewide ballot measures this year (including one to create a commission for regulating the cultivation and sale of cannabis). And in the Portland area, voters will consider four, including a $482 million capital bond for the Portland school district, and a tax increase for Multnomah County residents to provide permanent funding for libraries.

The arts measure, estimated to raise $12 million each year, would be used to hire art and music teachers in public elementary schools in six Portland school districts. In addition, a portion of the money would provide grants to nonprofit arts organizations and other entities to make arts and cultural offerings more widely available.

Proponents of Measure 26-146 include Democratic Mayor Sam Adams, the Portland Association of Teachers, the City Club of Portland, and the Portland Opera, not to mention local indie-rock groups the Decemberists, Modest Mouse, and the Dandy Warhols.

“Portland’s embarrassing lack of arts and music education in our public schools puts our kids’ future at risk,” said Gwen Sullivan, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers. “Measure 26-146 is a powerful and creative solution that will help keep students engaged in school and on track to graduate.”

Opponents include the Portland Business Alliance, the editorial board of The Oregonian newspaper, and the Portland chapter of Stand for Children, an education advocacy group.

“Considering the scope of the problem the tax ostensibly addresses, you might ask why only half of the revenue would be used to hire the teachers who provide all that missing instruction,” said an editorial in The Oregonian. “And given advocates’ concern for low-income kids, you might be surprised to know that families teetering on the brink of poverty would pay exactly the same amount every year as multimillionaires.”

The issue has sparked some debate on Blue Oregon, a progressive-leaning political blog.

An October poll of Portland residents may give proponents some pause. In all, 21 percent said they would vote “yes,” 22 percent “no,” with the rest undecided. (By contrast, a school district bond measure has 42 percent voting “yes” and 24 percent “no.”)

In the end, whatever happens, I suppose we can all take some consolation from Modest Mouse’s words of wisdom: “Don’t worry, even if things end up a bit too heavy, we’ll all float on.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.

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