FOR ALL the hype surrounding Portland's "creative class," we're dismally far behind in one important measure of creative investment: arts education in our public schools.

Portland's Creative Advocacy Network (CAN)—making its case for a November ballot measure on arts funding—has begun pointing to a troubling federal study that reveals how far behind Portland has fallen. Nationally, 94 percent of elementary schools offer dedicated music instruction and 83 percent teach visual art, while CAN found that in Portland's six public school districts those numbers drop to 58 percent and 18 percent respectively.

Study after study has found that students who receive arts instruction perform better on tests and improve their chances of going to college. But in Portland, according to CAN's statistics, there are "11,596 children attending schools who do not have any art, dance, drama, and music instruction."

"Art and music have taken particularly hard hits with school funding cuts," says CAN's Jessica Jarratt Miller. "Centennial and Parkrose [School Districts] have cut half of their staffs. Portland Public Schools [PPS] has cut 26 arts and music teachers in two years."

Even Portland's sole arts-focused public elementary school isn't immune.

Buckman Elementary, which integrates dance, drama, music, and visual art into its curriculum, recently announced the layoffs of two of its three full-time arts instructors, because of budget cuts. (That has since been revised to 1.5 layoffs, as one part-time position has been restored.) Buckman, which receives no additional funding from PPS for its unique curriculum, must raise $177,000 by June 30 to restore its teaching staff. (That amount also accounts for a PPS rule that says 30 percent of any cash raised by individual school foundations must go to a special equity fund for reallocation to needy schools.)

But even if Buckman does manage to raise the money, it'll only see the school through one more year. A permanent solution is needed, and that's where CAN comes in.

In partnership with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), CAN wants voters to approve a special income tax increase this fall, hoping to change the way the arts and arts education are funded in Portland.

CAN has yet to release full details of the plan, which has the support of Mayor Sam Adams. But Miller says the three-part package would restore arts and music teachers to elementary schools by the 2013-2014 school year; increase public funding for local arts organizations (up from 2 percent of their budgets to 5 percent—the national average); and pay for outreach programs that provide free arts and culture programs to the community. Both CAN and RACC would administer money raised from the tax, in the form of grants to schools and nonprofit organizations.

Buckman Elementary parents, meanwhile, are turning to the community for funds, something they've gotten quite good at over the years: The Buckman Foundation, steered by an active community of parents, has raised money for pianos, choir risers, teachers' after-school hours, and more, through an annual art sale and high-profile benefit concerts. That dedication stands out, because despite its status as an arts magnet, Buckman is also a neighborhood school in rental-heavy inner Southeast, where approximately 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

But fundraising is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, which is why a Buckman contingent will march in a Friday, May 11, protest against school budget cuts. The march is set to start in the Rose Quarter at 3:30 pm and finish in Pioneer Courthouse Square.

"We can't let our kids be without dance and visual art next year. We've already lost so much," says Karen Stein, a Buckman parent. "If the arts program is stripped bare, then we will have lost the heart and soul of the school."