Brandon Johnson wants voters to know about his time on the front lines of Chicago Public Schools.
The mayoral candidate and longtime Chicago Teachers Union organizer often revisits his role in the 2015 hunger strike over reopening Dyett High School on the South Side. He recalls his view from Jenner Academy of the Arts, where he taught while the city’s infamous Cabrini-Green public housing towers were felled nearby. And he shares memories of his past students.
“One of my students looked me in the face and said, ‘Mr. Johnson, you should not be teaching here. … You should be teaching at a good school,’” Johnson recalled during his victory speech Feb. 28, when he placed second among nine candidates to advance to the runoff. “It broke my heart then. It breaks my heart today. I wanted to change the system.”
But while Johnson tends to lead with emotion when talking about CPS, his rival, Paul Vallas, prefers to speak in statistics.
Vallas regularly cites its per-pupil spending — though using a figure that’s nearly double the official state number and whose accuracy has been questioned. A big proponent of school choice, he’s often noted that 97% of local charter school students are Black or Latino. To underscore the problem of underused schools and dropping enrollment, he points to Manley Career Academy High School, which has fewer than 70 students.
He’s also sought to spotlight the impact he had when he ran CPS from 1995 to 2001.
“You know, (Johnson) talks about being an elementary school teacher. Did he ever mention that the school that he taught in was the Jenner School that I built right in the heart of Cabrini-Green?” Vallas said. “Next to the (Walter Payton College Prep), which I also built when Cabrini was still standing, and we had basically guaranteed slots for the (Cabrini) kids?”
Whomever voters choose as Chicago’s next mayor on April 4 will not just run City Hall but also oversee Illinois’ largest school district. That will include entering into contract negotiations with the teachers union, whose current deal expires in 2024; coping with enrollment loss as a moratorium on school closings ends; and preparing for the transition to an elected school board before the next term is up. And while both men have deep roots in Chicago’s education landscape, they have sharply contrasting views on issues including student testing, COVID-19 mitigations and charter schools.
Chicago residents will be selecting between two radically different trajectories for hundreds of thousands of students and their families, said CPS parent Cassie Creswell, director of the nonprofit Illinois Families for Public Schools. “It feels very historic and significant to have two people who have absolutely diametrically opposed careers and policy positions,” said Creswell, who plans to vote for Johnson. “It’s like being on the precipice of possibly good change — or possibly a continuation of the last 30 years of school reform in Chicago.”
The next mayor will be the last to appoint their own school board, a power city leaders have enjoyed since the late 1990s when reforms granted full control to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
”There’s so many basic experiences of school that are affected by bigger policies,” Creswell said. “How much pressure and focus there is on standardized test scores, how much time you get to do art or music … to play as a child. If there’s a kid who’s upset, is there another adult in the building besides your classroom teacher who can sit down with them and calm them down? Do you have a social worker or a nurse if someone cuts themselves on the playground. … All of that is ultimately decided by education policy.”
Joyce Kenner, principal of CPS’ Whitney Young Magnet High School for 27 years before her recent retirement, said she sees the potential continuation of Vallas’ management approach as a benefit.
“He understands what the issues are within our school system and he has some recommendations on how to fix those. I just think that our city cannot afford to have a long learning curve.”
Kenner began her tenure at Whitney Young the same school year Vallas became district CEO. “His leadership was strong. People were more accountable … to some degree people were afraid of him. … A little bit is good because it makes people do their jobs, do them well and then go home at the end of the day.”
A decade after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools despite community and CTU outcry, both Johnson and Vallas say they aim to turn around the district’s yearslong enrollment decline by changing how CPS’ roughly 600 schools are funded and programmed.
Vallas has said programs for adult students can boost underused schools and that vacant school buildings should be rented to charter schools in need of more space. Vallas said at a recent forum he believes the number of charters operating within CPS is sufficient, though as recently as 2022 he was advocating for more. His education plan also includes lifting the enrollment cap at high-performing charters and he has repeatedly expressed that school choice is the “civil rights issue for our generation.”
On potential future CPS school closures, Vallas usually hedges his answer, though he told Block Club Chicago in a recent podcast: ”I don’t think we’re really going to have to close schools.”
Although Vallas pledged in an interview with Block Club Chicago his “overwhelming focus is on traditional public schools,” that leaves room for him to continue supporting controversial voucher programs and charters.
Since 2018, Illinois’ Invest in Kids voucher program has directed up to $75 million in tax revenue per year to cover tuition at private, mostly religion-based schools — including for around 4,000 Chicago students in 2022, according to the most recent Illinois Department of Revenue report. The program, which is being considered for reauthorization, is due to end in January 2025.
Joshua Cowen, education policy professor and research director of the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, said school choice programs often come with low test scores and high exit rates. Cowen has evaluated a series of private school voucher programs across the country, including the system launched in New Orleans when Vallas was chief of schools.
“We saw some of the largest negative impacts on student achievement we have ever seen, on anything, in any sort of area — really catastrophically large for kids who use (voucher programs),” Cowen said.
Vallas, however, has defended school choice by arguing students should be allowed to go to better schools than what’s available in their neighborhoods.
Johnson has pledged to fight to increase state funding to CPS and to shift from an enrollment-based to a needs-based model for determining how much each school gets.
He’s also promised to fully staff bilingual and special education programs; to house the district’s nearly 4,000 homeless students in partnership with the Department of Family and Support Services; to provide more mental health professionals in schools; and to make buildings environmentally sustainable and accessible to students with disabilities.
Johnson’s plans have been criticized, however, as financially unrealistic in aiming to procure additional state funds for the cash-strapped district.
Vallas’ vision for education includes identifying and supporting at-risk youth but does not directly address the requests for more social workers and staffing in programs for diverse learners, as teachers have sought.
Both candidates have called for the creation of work-study programs and community schools that provide services to families beyond the traditional school day — child care and health services in Johnson’s vision, and academic support and recreational opportunities in Vallas’.
Regarding underutilized schools across the district, Johnson said a process that identifies and addresses root causes can provide schools an opportunity to grow their enrollment, while Vallas’ plan promises to systematically convert failing or under-enrolled schools into open-enrollment magnet schools.
Johnson has said he believes better program design can also prevent enrollment decreases. And Vallas often cites high enrollment during his tenure as CPS CEO two decades ago as a harbinger of his leadership as mayor.
But population trends, rather than political will, largely drives the district’s declining enrollment, said Forest Gregg, a partner with the Chicago-based consulting firm DataMade. Its research attributes the decreasing numbers of CPS students in part to the loss of population, particularly among Black families, and a trend of immigrant families having fewer children.
”Both the candidates seem to think that enrollment is declining because Chicago families are choosing to not send their children to Chicago Public Schools. It’s not. Enrollment is declining because there are many fewer children being born in Chicago,” Gregg said. “CPS can’t change these bigger trends by itself. It’s a city issue.”
According to Gregg, the remedy lies with broader, family-friendly policies that help particularly Black and Latino Chicagoans “be secure enough that they feel like they can have and take care of as many children as they want.” Among family-friendly policies the candidates have promised on the campaign trail: Vallas has said he’ll increase the supply of affordable housing. Child care for all is among the key points of Johnson’s platform.
How the candidates deal with the teachers contract is another potential flashpoint. The CTU’s demand for increased parental leave for CPS employees is among the points of contention between the union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, which the next mayor could inherit. CTU’s current contract — finalized only after a two-week strike by CTU in 2019 — will expire in June 2024.
Union members continue to advocate for more nurses, social workers and special education classroom assistants, as well as more funding to meet the needs of an influx of migrant students, to make schools cleaner and safer and generally to alleviate the strain inside schools.
While the CTU has derided Vallas’ leadership, for ushering charter schools into the district and forgoing contributions to the teachers pension fund, he presided over a period of peace with the union — a point he often highlights on the campaign trail. But the teachers union has significantly changed since he was CEO, and is now far more focused on broader social issues.
For Johnson, who is a Cook County commissioner, criticism has come from the opposite end of relations with CTU. Currently on leave in his role as a paid CTU organizer, Johnson has had to address criticism that he’s too close to the union to fairly represent the interests of the district at large, and of taxpayers, in contract talks. Initially, Johnson brushed off such questions, but he recently sought to assuage those concerns.
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the city of Chicago, and once I’m mayor of the city of Chicago, I will no longer be a member of the Chicago Teachers Union,” Johnson said.
The candidates have also differed on test scores. In New Orleans and Chicago, the city saw improvements, which Vallas often highlights, despite critics saying he is overstating or simplifying those gains.
For his part, Johnson has been critical of testing. “This narrative that our children are not proficient, keep in mind that it’s based on the standardized test that has history in eugenics that was trying to prove that Black people were inferior,” Johnson said at a mayoral forum.
“Under my administration, we’re going to invest in people,” Johnson continued. “How about we actually do something better than a standardized test?”
Johnson has not elaborated on what he would do about the various tests that CPS students are subject to, whether annual state-mandated tests or entrance exams for the district’s magnet high schools.
But as recently as Thursday, he reiterated a blanket disapproval for standardized testing when asked about the grade he’d give current CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. The candidate did not indicate whether or not he would keep Lightfoot’s appointed schools chief on beyond saying a discussion would be had after the election.
Vallas also did not commit to a grade for Martinez but praised him for his “reform” approach when previously leading San Antonio’s school district. As for Martinez’s tenure in Chicago, Vallas said any blemishes on his record are due to Lightfoot’s control.
“I’m not ready to give him a grade,” Vallas said, “because the mayor really has control over the schools.”