"WE DID WHATEVER IT TOOK. We're a two-woman team," says first-time filmmaker Emily Sterling when we meet up at Perception Media's office in a converted bungalow on NE Broadway.
Sterling and Char Hutson's debut documentary, Arts Exit: Saving the Creative Kid, which was selected by the Hollywood Theatre for a fiscal sponsorship, tracks the human cost of gutted arts education in Portland's schools. The filmmakers' rationale is simple: They're both educators in Portland Public Schools. By day, Hutson's a community outreach coordinator who works with a caseload of 400-plus students, and Sterling directs a youth development middle school program. To make Arts Exit, Sterling and Hutson filmed and edited around the demands—and schedules—of their day jobs, tracking students' experiences in the wake of drastic cuts to arts education.
Hutson and Sterling wanted to see what impact those cuts have on students on the ground, and what they found is devastating: While the film intentionally avoids demonizing Portland Public Schools ("They did the best with what they could," says Sterling), it strongly suggests that for at least one of the students Sterling and Hutson shadowed, losing access to arts education meant the end of her education altogether.
On a macro level, research bears this out. Arts education is often linked with improved test scores and higher rates of graduation and admission into college—particularly for low-income students and students of color. When Hutson and Sterling say that for some of their students, access to arts education is the only reason they come to school at all, I believe it. Nevertheless, when school districts face budget cuts—as Portland Public Schools did after the 1990 passage of Measure 5 cut property-based funding for education—the arts are often first to go. By 2011, only 18 percent of Portland elementary schools offered arts education in their curriculum, compared with 83 percent nationally, according to the Creative Advocacy Network.
One possible solution? Portland's terminally confusing (not to say straight-up unpopular) arts tax. Even Sterling admits that it "does have a PR issue," but since its implementation, the arts tax has countered the trend mapped in Arts Exit, albeit on a very basic level. According to the Portland Office of Management and Finance, the city saw 62-68 percent compliance with the arts tax in 2012, which set a baseline goal of getting arts education back into Portland's public schools, hewing to the uninspiring ratio of one arts educator for every 500 elementary school students. In January, Portland Public Schools announced that arts tax revenue had been used to reinstate arts programming in every public kindergarten-through-eighth grade school in the district.
"The funding is having an impact," says Sterling. Of course, it doesn't apply to the programs profiled in her film, or the teenage students featured in it. "What about the middle schoolers and what about the high schoolers?" Sterling asks.
Indeed, what about them? While parent-teacher associations at schools in affluent areas have been able to fill the gap in funding, Sterling and Hutson say this isn't the case with schools in low-income areas. Access to arts education is frequently skewed toward the privileged, and its availability in public schools is one way of leveling the playing field. After showing me a clip from Arts Exit, Hutson recalled a time when arts education flourished at Portland's Jefferson High School, where she was a student when it was still a magnet school for the arts. "There was nothing I could not explore," says Hutson. "I had those options. At a low-achieving school, they don't have those opportunities."