#WeAllDeserveArts: Paul Sznewajs, Executive Director, Ingenuity

March 19, 2021

In 2020, Illinois became one of the first states in the nation to include the arts as a distinct, weighted indicator of K-12 success in its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) state plan. 

Advocacy is a lot like performance – it’s creative, it’s collaborative, and there are no small parts. In one of our best performances to date, arts advocates from across Illinois made history by successfully advocating for the ESSA arts indicator.

Signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind as the nation’s primary education law for all public schools, giving more authority to states and school systems than its predecessor. Under ESSA, states are responsible for holding schools accountable for student achievement and for designing the education plans and quality indicators for schools.

In other words, ESSA gives states the opportunity to institutionalize the arts in public schools through policy. When it passed, we sprang into action.

Ingenuity joined our state partner, Arts Alliance Illinois, in rallying arts educators, teaching artists, principals, parents, arts organizations, and many more arts advocates from across the state around an ESSA arts indicator. Together, we encouraged over 5,000 Illinoisans to respond to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) public comment period in support of a distinct arts indicator – more than the combined total of all other comments related to ESSA. After this overwhelming public response, ISBE tapped Ingenuity and Arts Alliance to co-lead the development of recommendations for an arts indicator measure and weight.

As arts education supporters and advocates, we know the arts are essential to a well-rounded, comprehensive education for students. We know the arts provide much-needed outlets for creativity and self-discovery. We know the arts foster discipline and boost confidence. But in arts advocacy, what we know doesn’t mean much unless we can measure it.

So we measured. Ingenuity and Arts Alliance convened teachers, education policy experts, and arts education advocacy organizations from across the state to form the Arts Indicator Work Group. Chaired by Karla Rivera, Ingenuity’s former Director of Public Affairs and current Executive Director of Free Street Theater, and Jonathan VanderBrug, Arts Alliance’s Deputy Director of Civic Engagement, our Arts Indicator Work Group comprised 27 members representing various regions and areas of expertise.

Ingenuity led the Work Group’s Data & Research Team in conducting the most comprehensive analysis of Illinois statewide arts education data to date. Our team played a key role in assisting the Work Group, creating an interactive data tool to help them explore and test possible measures for the indicator. 

For example, the Work Group was especially concerned with creating a measure that would not penalize underfunded schools, so we conducted extensive research on the impact of school funding, ultimately finding no strong correlation between school funding and student arts participation in Illinois schools. We considered countless more equity- and access-related questions, and, after much research and data analysis, helped develop an inclusive, evidence-based, and student-centered arts indicator.

On March 18, 2020 – following three years of advocating, researching, and organizing – our arts community helped the state make history. ISBE unanimously voted to approve the arts indicator in Illinois’ ESSA plan, starting with the 2022-2023 school year. The indicator equals 5% of every school’s total score, placing the arts alongside subjects like math and science as a measure of success in every public school in Illinois.

Our community’s victory is important not just for students here in Illinois, but for students everywhere. The success of the Arts Indicator Work Group offers arts supporters across the country a blueprint for securing an arts indicator in their own ESSA state plan, and displays just how effective our skills as artists and arts educators can be for advocacy.

After all, no one performs better than we do.


Paul Sznewajs is the founding Executive Director of Ingenuity, a Chicago-based backbone nonprofit with core programs in data, advocacy, grant-making, and professional learning. In his role, Paul has forged working partnerships and alliances with numerous city departments, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and almost every major cultural institution in Chicago, leading Ingenuity to advance the most progress in CPS arts education in 40 years. With nearly two decades of senior leadership experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, he has a track record of building, launching and evaluating complex social sector initiatives. Learn more at ingenuity-inc.org.

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