On Tuesday night, Brandon Johnson, a former middle and high school teacher, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, and a Cooke County Commissioner, was elected to be the next mayor of Chicago.
The public schools have been at the center of mayoral politics in Chicago since 1995, when a state legislative overhaul launched mayoral governance, the possibility of charter schools, and a cascade of test-and-punish reforms—a mix of policies that culminated in June of 2013 in the shutdown of 50 neighborhood public schools on the South Side and West Side after the rapid proliferation of charter schools. Paul Vallas, one of the candidates in Tuesday’s mayoral election, oversaw the launch of those school reforms as the Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Executive Officer from 1995-2001.
In mid-March, Chicago education reporters, Sarah Karp of WBEZ, and Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times, characterized the mayor’s race between, “Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, versus Brandon Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union official. Vallas built a long career on pledges he could give children a better education by reforming low-performing schools in dramatic and controversial ways. Johnson has spent his time organizing around better support for students and targeting the conditions around them in neighborhoods, decrying drastic reforms as disruptive to relationships kids need to succeed. At the heart of the argument is whether teachers and schools are primarily to blame for low performance or whether a lack of investment in schools and communities is the main driver.”
Since 2011, Brandon Johnson has served as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union; he is also in his first term as a Cooke County Commissioner. Before that, he earned a masters degree in education and taught social studies for several years to middle schoolers at Jenner Elementary beginning in 2007. When the school closed, he moved to a high school.
School decline accelerated in 2014, when Chicago adopted student based budgeting, which pushed many neighborhood schools into a downward enrollment cycle and further reduced services available in the schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Brandon Johnson has pledged to end that cycle. For WBEZ, Nader Issa and Sarah Karp explain Johnson’s position on this issue: “Johnson… says he would… focus on beefing up traditional neighborhood schools in an effort to end the ‘Hunger Games scenario’ where kids ‘apply to access a quality school.’ That includes fully staffed special education departments, librarians, art and music teachers and nurses and social workers, he said.” “Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school… This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.”
Vallas campaigned on more police to a quell a years-long rise in gun violence. By choosing Brandon Johnson in this election, the majority of Chicagoans voted for neighborhood repair instead of police crackdown. In his campaign Johnson stressed the need for strengthening essential community institutions including neighborhood schools, trauma intervention services for students and families, and a collaboration with Cooke County to improve improve mental health services.
What did Chicago voters reject when they elected Brandon Johnson?
Paul Vallas was the efficiency-hawk technocrat brought in as Chief Executive Officer in 1995 to launch Mayor Richard M. Daley’s and the Illinois Legislature’s plan for the Chicago Public Schools—to be operated under the mayor and an appointed school board. Karp, Issa, and FitzPatrick describe Vallas as “the ultimate technocrat… aiming to solve societal problems with a sort of scientific approach, and who, without degrees in education, asserted that low-performing schools either needed to change or students should be allowed to choose a new one.” “The state legislature had just given Daley control over the city’s schools and Vallas was the first non-educator to hold the school system’s top job. Vallas leaned on standardized testing and fired staff at so-called ‘failing’ schools while holding back underperforming students. He promoted a system of choice, opening 18 new schools, several of them magnet and selective enrollment high schools seen as a way to keep the middle class in Chicago. And he opened the city’s first charter schools amid a national movement to offer alternatives to traditional public schools.”
Pauline Lipman, an education researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago, reminds us that, “When test scores flattened in 2001, Vallas left. But the system he set up of ranking and sorting schools based on an inappropriate use of standardized tests, and disregarding the historical disinvestment and racism schools had suffered, laid the foundation for almost 200 school closings and turn-arounds and the education market that followed. These school closings, 90 percent predominantly Black, devastated Black communities in particular. Vallas’s (2023) electoral campaign focuses on fighting crime, but the disruptions from the school closings that were a major factor in the destabilization of Black communities can be traced back to Vallas’s reign at CPS.”
Vallas left Chicago in 2001 for a stint in the School District of Philadelphia, where he also opened charter schools, and, in 2007, he was brought in to New Orleans to manage the mass charterization of the public schools that had been launched in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Lipman, Camika Royal at Loyola University Maryland, and Adrienne Dixson at the University of Kentucky conclude: “From Chicago, to Philadelphia, to New Orleans—three school districts serving primarily students of color—Paul Vallas left a trail of top-down, punitive, destabliizing and fiscally irresponsible policies. Our research… reveals that rather than ‘restoring broken education systems,’ Vallas has a pattern of leadership that demoralizes teachers and undermines public education.”
In a profound 2018 book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of neighborhood schools for the communities they serve—something that Paul Vallas has always failed to grasp but Brandon Johnson made the center of his campaign. Ewing describes how the school reforms launched by Paul Vallas over time affected one Chicago South Side neighborhood: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”
Ewing continues, describing the huge wave of Chicago school closures in the two decades following Vallas’s technocratic makeover: “These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it? What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)
These are the very issues that were at stake the 2023 mayoral race in Chicago. The voters chose Brandon Johnson.