More than 30 years ago, financial problems in Chicago Public Schools dealt arts education a blow from which it has yet to fully recover. Although policy supporting the arts in Chicago schools has never been stronger, it remains to be seen whether Central Office and school principals can find ways to sustain recent gains despite the latest financial crisis.

The financial crisis of 1979 devastated arts instruction with a shortened school day and the layoff of virtually all arts teachers. The arts did not begin to make a comeback until the advent of Chicago’s first wave of school reform, a decade later.

In the late 1990s, the CPS contract with the Chicago Teachers Union required that Central Office pay for two arts educators at every high school — one in visual arts, the other in music. But most elementary schools made do with one part-time arts teacher.

By 1998, there were about 800 arts teachers in CPS, with more than half in high schools. That year, a survey of 189 CPS schools showed that only 13 percent spent more than $10,000 annually on arts education, excluding teacher salaries.

However, schools were stretching their scarce arts resources by partnering with community arts organizations and pushing to integrate the arts into academic subjects.

Foundations picked up some of the slack in district arts education by underwriting professional development for teachers and supporting artist-in-residence programs. In the best of these programs, a teaching artist could spend up to 10 weeks working alongside one or more classroom teachers to integrate arts with academic instruction.

Meanwhile, the district made slow strides in beefing up arts education centrally. Plans for an audition-entrance, arts-focused high school culminated in the 2009 opening of Chicago High School for the Arts, or ChiArts.

See “Arts get smart to survive,” Catalyst February 1998 and “Q & A with David Roche” Catalyst May 2007.


In 2012, the Board of Education approved an arts plan that declared arts a core subject, mandated that elementary students be provided at least two hours a week in arts instruction, and added dance and theater as options for meeting high school graduation requirements in the arts.

This effort, an extension of the city’s broader cultural plan, was developed with the support of Ingenuity, Inc., a nonprofit that grew out of years of organizing by arts advocates, funders and community-based arts organizations.

In summer 2014, Ingenuity released a baseline report detailing the state of arts education across the district as of 2012-13, when the arts plan was unveiled. At the time, only 40 percent of elementary schools met the weekly instructional requirement for arts. On average, elementary students were receiving 99 minutes a week of arts instruction.

[Disclosure: This reporter served as copywriter for Ingenuity’s initial report. She has had no further working relationship with Ingenuity.]

To support the new arts requirements, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ponied up $10.5 million in TIF funds to hire 84 new arts teachers, who started work in the 2014-15 school year. Schools were expected to find funding to replace the TIF money gradually over time.

The arts plan also encourages more school-community arts partnerships, although instruction provided by visiting artists does not count toward the instructional time requirements. However, the Chicago Teachers Union filed a grievance in 2014, alleging that some schools were using arts partners to replace instruction by certified teachers.

See “With equity at stake, district kicks off arts plan” July 2012 and “Arts education report: More teachers and programs, but inequity remains” Catalyst July 2014.


Over the last few years, the arts plan appears to have taken root in the system. The number of certified arts teachers working in the district stood at 1,322 by 2014-15, according to Ingenuity’s latest report, released last month. Of elementary schools surveyed, 58 percent reported meeting the weekly requirement for two hours of arts instruction.  School-community arts partnerships also increased citywide.

But this budding renaissance in arts education could wither under current proposed budget cuts. Moreover, the TIF funds supporting many new arts hires will be exhausted at the end of this school year. About 40 schools on the South and West sides have already lost some of their arts offerings.

“We’re just going to have to see how things roll,” said Joanne Vena, director of school and community programs for Changing Worlds, a veteran nonprofit sponsor of community-school arts partnerships. “As strategic budgeters, principals can usually find a way to support things they think are working.”

Vena says her experience with current principals suggests there is strong support for keeping the arts vibrant to benefit both academic and social-emotional learning. “New principals are coming in and saying, ‘I understand why this is a priority. It makes our kids whole. We’re going to commit to it.’”

See “Take 5: Layoffs looming, school choice in spotlight, ACT decision,” Catalyst January 2016 and “More Chicago Public Schools Have Arts, Survey Finds,” Education Week January 2016.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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