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King County deserves more public funding for arts and culture

Credit: Courtesy of Seattle Aquarium

In 2009, Denny International Middle School offered just one orchestra class. These days, the Southwest Seattle school offers four.

For the last seven years, the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra Musical Pathways Project has provided music education programs in six Southwest Seattle elementary schools for kids who might otherwise go without. The success has been clear — programs at these six schools quadrupled orchestra enrollment at Denny. But providing important programs like this costs money that arts organizations often don’t have or are challenged to maintain.

Soon, King County voters could get a chance to support that work if the county council places a cultural access funding proposal on the August primary ballot. The proposal, called Access for All, would boost funding for arts, heritage and science institutions throughout the county. If passed, we could increase access to culture and learning for all students as well as low-income families, communities of color, seniors and people with disabilities.

The proposal includes a dramatic increase in funding to provide in-class learning experiences, transportation and free access to cultural exhibits and events for our public school students — with an emphasis on those from our underserved communities and communities of color.

It will also allow more institutions to offer more free and reduced-price tickets and memberships for low-income families and seniors, so diverse arts, science and heritage experiences aren’t just reserved for those who can afford them.

Greater cultural access can mean greater educational opportunities for kids and richer experiences for those who may not be able to afford a trip to the museum or a community theater play.

“Cultural access” takes many forms, and the programs offered are as diverse as the experiences they provide. For the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO), it means strengthening music education for new generations of kids growing up in a time when arts and music programs in our public schools are being drastically cut.

But for other important institutions, like the Seattle Aquarium, it means hosting a special event when parents of children with physical or mental disabilities can have a safe evening to share an engaging and memorable experience with their kids. For an everyday King County resident, that might not seem important. But for others, it can be a life-changing event.

Take Jake and his family. Jake is on the autism spectrum and was held back from a school field trip to the Aquarium because school officials were worried about his ‘behavior.’ Even though he is largely non-verbal, Jake told his parents, “Jake doesn’t get to see the fish. We don’t like you, Jake.”

But last year, Jake and other kids got to see the fish, thanks to the Aquarium’s “Dream Night.” Working with local partners, the Aquarium created a safe, accessible and welcoming space where families experienced the Aquarium without crowds or judgmental stares. More cultural access funding for the Aquarium would mean more opportunities for all the Jakes of our community.

SYSO and the Aquarium are just two of nearly 400 arts, science and heritage organizations that stand to benefit from Access for All. For the majority of them, providing greater access is a part of their mission, but the financial support just isn’t there.

The funding proposal wouldn’t be isolated to large Seattle organizations, either. Access for All would provide new funding for organizations throughout King County, ranging from regional institutions like the Aquarium to a theater in Issaquah and a historical society in Duvall. Smaller, community-based organizations would receive a larger portion of funding in relation to their budget size so more people could access the arts, science and heritage in their hometowns.

And the good news is that increasing cultural access funding is also an incredibly affordable investment. By increasing the sales tax by 0.1 percent — just one penny for every $10 spent — we can dramatically increase funding for cultural access and equity. With strong public oversight and robust reporting requirements, we will ensure that the public’s investment is used wisely.

The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra just expanded its program to four Southeast Seattle schools, providing new music education opportunities to kids who might otherwise not have access. Today, its in-school programs serve more than 800 students throughout King County.

But we can all better serve King County kids and families. By supporting Access for All, we can make King County a better place to live, learn and raise a family.

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