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Arts tax: Are we getting our money's worth?

Panel examines where money goes, education quality

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Arts Tax Oversight Committee member Dunja Jennings shows a copy of Portland Public Schools 1990 music curriculum. Jennings says it hasnt been updated for 26 years. Stanley Penkin’s elementary school-age granddaughter loves her new arts teacher. But, she tells him, at only 30 minutes of instruction per week, the teacher doesn’t know her name.

“That really hit home for me,” says Penkin, who is the chair of the city’s Arts Tax Oversight Committee. Penkin says the committee has even seen half-time arts teachers with 500 to 600 kids on their rosters and arts instruction only every other week.

“That raised a real red flag for us,” he says. “Is that quality arts education?”

It’s for these reasons the Arts Tax Oversight Committee is planning to take a deeper look soon at how Portland Public Schools and other districts are managing the citywide tax revenue.

Passed in 2012, the Arts Education and Access Income Tax requires every adult resident earning above a certain income to pay $35 a year. The intent was to add arts teachers in schools and lower the barriers to local arts programs.

While the tax has raised less money than expected — $35 million to date; $6.8 million in 2015-16 — it has added teachers.

Before the tax started, in the depths of the Great Recession, there were 30 arts teacher positions in Portland. Now, supporters crow, there are 91. This means an art, dance or music teacher in every K-5 school in PPS, Centennial, David Douglas, Parkrose, Reynolds and Riverdale school districts.

But the oversight committee wants to find out if those extra hours are actually giving all Portland kids a quality arts education — and taxpayers value for their money.

“If you look at FTE (full-time equivalent teaching positions), you can say ‘OK, there’s an arts teacher,’ “ says Dunja Jennings, an oversight committee member and music director for the Vibe after-school music program. “But that doesn’t say anything about quality of instruction.”

Portland Public Schools hasn’t updated its music curriculum since 1990, Jennings notes.

“There should be an aligning of standards — and there needs to be — and we don’t even have district standards,” she says.

PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles apologized for not being unable to verify the date of the last music curriculum update, nor comment for this story by our deadline, due to the district’s focus on lead and radon issues.

Kristen Brayson, a PPS arts teacher on special assignment, is quoted in an Americans for the Arts blog post as saying that the district’s investment in her position and in sixth- to eighth-grade arts (which isn’t funded by the arts tax) are examples of how the district is succeeding.

“This crucial step not only offers pathways for students to continue their arts learning, but specifically targets services for English language learners, students of color, and those who live in the opportunity gap, a true investment in equity,” Brayson said in the piece. She did not respond to a request for comment.

National standards trickling down

Marna Stalcup, the director of arts education for the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and author of the Americans for the Arts piece, works with the six districts that get money from the tax. She says that there is a disparity in how much instructional time in the arts each Portland kid is getting.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to pay attention to this year,” Stalcup says.

Stalcup says creating standards and assessments for arts education is a nationwide effort, with National Core Arts Standards having been revised less than two years ago, and individual school districts still trying to catch up.

“I know that districts are in different places in terms of how far along that path they are,” she says.

But Stalcup says she sees her role as support staff and defers to the oversight committee on holding districts accountable.

“Identifying those problem areas and calling them out, I don’t really see that as RACC’s role,” she says.

Jennings argues PPS has been leaning on contracts with nonprofits to do the work that arts teachers are supposed to be doing.

“The district has an obligation to serve every kiddo and not count on a nonprofit to do the work,” she says. Jennings says that the danger of relying on nonprofits to do the arts and music instruction is that they can cherry-pick students. They don’t have to take the ones the arts tax was most aimed at supporting — kids with hardships like disabilities, language barriers and poverty.

“The entire inequity that they had attempted to address has just continued,” Jennings says.

Partnering with nonprofits also could be seen as a way to outsource responsibility for finding certified teachers and creating a comprehensive curriculum, she says.

Stalcup says that would be a violation of the law and she doesn’t see that happening.

“I don’t have any evidence that it is,” Stalcup says.

Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan says the union also has a lot of questions about how PPS is using its arts tax dollars.

“It’s very difficult to get this information from the district,” Sullivan says. She says that, from her perspective, there should be a minimum requirement of in-school arts instruction before a nonprofit can come in to supplement.

No teeth in arts tax law

Penkin says the committee plans to ask districts next year for qualitative data, not just the quantity of teachers, programs and students. But he also says the committee will leave it up to districts to decide what measures prove they are offering quality instruction.

“Honestly, I don’t believe it is the job of our committee to totally define that,” he says. “We do not want to interfere with the school district. We’re not trying to tell the school districts what to do.”

But Jennings says she hears a lot of grumbling from Portlanders frustrated by the slow progress of arts instruction. Parents who still have to pay arts supply fees, in addition to the tax, are wondering why it isn’t working. Willamette Week reported in April that English-language learning students at Harrison Park (K-8) School in outer Southeast Portland have to miss music and art for their English classes.

But Jennings says the arts tax law doesn’t have any consequences for agencies that don’t comply. Neither the oversight committee nor the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which administers the revenue, have any teeth.

“I feel like, ultimately, it’s a group of parents showing up to board meetings and not settling and not taking ‘We don’t have any money’ as an answer,” she says. “Other districts are doing better than we are and we tend to get more (money) per student.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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