High stakes for Chicago schools in the mayoral election


On April 4, Chicago voters will choose a new mayor — and the decision could have a profound effect on the future of the country’s third-largest public school district, which is under mayoral control. The two candidates in the runoff election are Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, Democrats who offer vastly different views of public education.

Vallas is a politician and a former education superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn.; at the Recovery School District of Louisiana (most of the schools were in New Orleans); and in Philadelphia and Chicago. Vallas became known as a “turnaround” specialist, meaning he moved into troubled districts and supposedly turned them around.

However, as education historian Larry Cuban wrote: “Whether, indeed, Vallas turned around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans is contested. Supporters point to more charter schools, fresh faces in the classroom, new buildings, and slowly rising test scores; critics point to abysmal graduation rates for Black and Latino students, enormous budget deficits, and implementation failures.”

Vallas has also unsuccessfully run for several offices, including mayor of Chicago in 2019 and lieutenant governor of Illinois in 2014.

Johnson was a public school teacher in high-poverty areas where school closures and gun violence affected the communities. He then became an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union and fought to keep neighborhood schools open, expand state funding to district schools and reduce the use of high-stakes standardized tests. He has said he will not cut funding from Chicago public schools if he is elected mayor.

In 2018, he was elected commissioner of the 1st District of Cook County, where he led a successful effort to ban housing discriminating against formerly incarcerated people.

Chicago mayoral election heads to runoff

The following was written by Cassie Creswell and Diane Horwitz, who are concerned about the privatization of public education. Creswell is a public school parent in Chicago and director of Illinois Families for Public Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbies for policies that support public education, which it sees as a public good. Horwitz is a graduate of Chicago public schools, a retired educator and a board member of Illinois Families for Public Schools. Both are writing as individuals and are not speaking for the organization.

By Cassie Creswell and Diane Horwitz

In just a week, the future direction of Chicago Public Schools will be decided by voters in a pivotal mayoral election. The two candidates, Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and teachers union organizer, offer diametrically opposed visions for schools in Chicago, which will remain under mayoral control at least through January 2027.

We see the choice as stark. Will Chicago move in the direction of school privatization, a movement gaining ground in a number of states around the country with the growth of charter schools as well as school funding programs that use public money to fund private and religious education?

Or will there be a commitment to well-resourced neighborhood schools and increased funding that would be used to reduce class size, expand mental health services and bilingual education, and ensure that every school has a nurse and a librarian?

Will there be a recognition that the conditions in which many Chicago public school students live — in impoverished and segregated communities marked by violence and disinvestment — must be tackled as part of a broad education improvement agenda?

Johnson’s education platform emphasizes that families should not have to leave their communities or compete to secure a spot in a school that meets their needs and includes a library, music and art program, and small class sizes. He says that neighborhood schools contribute not only to the well-being of students but also to that of the communities in which they are located.

To learn about improving urban public schools, we should study Chicago. Yes, Chicago.

Saying that Chicago public schools are underfunded, he has called for more resources from the state that would be distributed based on the needs of a school’s student population and not solely on enrollment numbers. He has called for creating sustainable community schools with wraparound supports and his education plan integrates proposals for affordable housing, transportation and safety.

Vallas has criticized the operation of Chicago public schools and says he will make schools safer while creating new programs to bring back students who have left the system. He also said he would work to expand alternatives to public schools for families and would change the way schools are funded to “follow the student.”

Vallas has long supported initiatives that critics say are aimed at privatizing public education. He spelled out his vision for the future of Chicago’s school system in a little-noticed op-ed that he wrote for the Chicago Tribune in February 2022, months before declaring his candidacy — and that is what we focus on here. Here are some of his most revealing statements:

Vallas supports expanding Illinois’ existing “Invest in Kids” voucher program, a tax credit scholarship program that offers a 75 percent income tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute to organizations that pay for private and religious schools. A full 95 percent of participating schools are religious. More than 4,000 Chicago students were funded in this way in the last school year.

Vallas has also floated the idea of using tax increment financing (TIF) dollars to pay for K-12 school vouchers during the current campaign. TIF is a complex, and often misused, public financing initiative designed to fund development through investments and infrastructure in economically struggling communities.

The details of Vallas’ proposal in the Tribune highlight a fiscal initiative that we think is rash. He proposes applying TIF surplus dollars to cover teachers’ pension costs, and then using money that should be earmarked for pensions for vouchers. Vallas says this will allow these diversions of funds to be “legally accomplished.” One of the key concerning legacies of Vallas’ time as the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools was years of unpaid pension debt, generated by diverting funds that should have gone to teachers’ pensions into operating costs.

The problem with the Paul Vallas brand of school reform

Religious charter schools

In Oklahoma, the Catholic Church recently asked the state to establish a virtual, openly religious charter school. In December 2022, Oklahoma’s outgoing attorney general issued a controversial legal opinion supporting the church’s application, saying that prohibiting religious charter schools violated the First Amendment. It was praised by Oklahoma’s Republican governor and state superintendent.

Ten months earlier, Paul Vallas’ op-ed called for religious contract schools, a type of charter school, to be established in Chicago. He wrote: “Longer term, the city can invite state-recognized parochial and private schools to become ‘contract schools’ in which the district contributes to or covers tuition for students who attend.”

Oklahoma’s new attorney general, a conservative Republican, took office in January and quickly rescinded his predecessor’s opinion, saying it “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.”

Vallas also gave a nod of support to the 2022 Supreme Court Carson v. Makin decision, in which six ultraconservative justices ruled that the state of Maine could not exempt religious institutions from a school voucher program.

Vallas justified his vision for charter school expansion on “a long history of contracting out for private educational services. There is precedent.”

“The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education grants the right to equitable educational opportunity. It is a right guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Those in power in Chicago have chosen to interpret this right as a mandate that all public financing of education be allocated exclusively to ‘public’ or government-run schools.”

Let it be noted that after Brown v. Board of Education, many communities in Southern states responded by spending public dollars on private schools using voucher schemes — private academies created for White students whose families refused to send them to public schools with Black children and were given public dollars to fund tuition.

It seems to us that Vallas is twisting the import of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, using it to include the use of public dollars to fund children’s departure from public — or, as he called them, “government-run” — schools. His use of the phrase “government-run schools” mirrors the language used by former president Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who framed public education as a government institution essentially holding students hostage.

Private and religious schools that take public funds are not bound by the same anti-discrimination regulations as public schools, leaving them free to discriminate on the basis of disability, LGBTQ+ status, parenting and pregnancy status, English-language learner status and religion itself.

Dollars follow students”

Vallas ended his op-ed by saying that he supports the “explicit endorsement of a reconstituted system in which parents get to direct the per-pupil public dollars to the school (or education model) of their choosing.”

This is exactly what DeVos has long advocated: “Fund students, not systems.”

DeVos is a leader in the national movement toward the privatization of our public schools, via vouchers, charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — and other often poorly regulated funding programs. Those include education savings accounts and direct financial support for home schooling. The goal: discrediting and dismantling our public schools districts.

Vallas was clear about his plans, which would work toward that goal in Chicago. It’s up to the voters now.

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