Chicago’s mayoral candidates have radically different approaches to fixing public schools. Here’s why.

Paul Vallas is a technocrat devoted to school choice. Brandon Johnson is a teachers union organizer. Their backgrounds explain their clashing views.

The two candidates for Chicago mayor have radically different histories and views on how to improve schools. Here, students leaves South Shore International College Prep, one of the city's 11 test-in schools. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
The two candidates for Chicago mayor have radically different histories and views on how to improve schools. Here, students leaves South Shore International College Prep, one of the city's 11 test-in schools. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Chicago’s mayoral candidates have radically different approaches to fixing public schools. Here’s why.

Paul Vallas is a technocrat devoted to school choice. Brandon Johnson is a teachers union organizer. Their backgrounds explain their clashing views.

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Two candidates remain on the ballot for Chicago’s April 4 mayoral runoff election whose stories cannot be told without public schools: 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.

The two mayoral candidates make the same claim: His own background in education qualifies him to lead the nation’s third-largest city while the other’s experiences and approach pose a danger to the public school system that will remain under mayoral control until 2027.

Chicago Sun-Times
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas at a mayoral debate on March 16 hosted by WLS-TV ABC Channel 7. Tyler Pasciak / Chicago Sun-Times

Paul Vallas. former CPS CEO

By the time Louisiana education officials hired Vallas in 2007 to rebuild the public schools in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, he had developed a reputation as the preeminent agent of the education reform movement.

Vallas, 69, was the ultimate technocrat in a wave of them 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.

Vallas had already made radical and rapid top-down changes in Chicago — including overseeing the opening of the first charter schools here — and Philadelphia. Louisiana leaders who wanted charter schools decided he was their guy, and his tried and tested methods worked with blistering effect in New Orleans’ Recovery School District: Nearly all public schools there today are publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, and the city remains the only major American city without neighborhood schools.But as much praise as he received for his boldness, sharp criticism followed.

“The whole corporate reform that was going across the country was, ‘Schools are a business, we have to treat them like a business,’” says Lisa Haver, a longtime teacher in the Philadelphia public schools. “And we’re still trying to recover from that.”

Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana superintendent of education who hired Vallas in New Orleans, says this mass privatization of schools had positive results.

“Anytime you are a change agent, people will have challenges with that,” Pastorek says. “But more people than not are very satisfied with it.”

Vallas says his time in education is “what gives me value.”

“I get a little overly defensive about my record because the record is what it is,” Vallas says. “I think it’s a record of commitment, and it’s a record of sacrifice.”

Chicago Sun-Times
Before running Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas was appointed Mayor Richard M. Daley’s director of revenue in 1990. Chicago Sun-Times

Vallas started by reshaping Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001 with a mandate from former Mayor Richard M. Daley to shake up a school system that was struggling financially and academically. 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.

Daley praised Vallas for spearheading reading and math gains, repairing schools, creating balanced budgets while giving teachers raises and strengthening afterschool and summer programs through private vendors — even if by the end Daley grew disillusioned with his schools chief and criticized a downturn in scores.

Vallas paid for programs and a huge repair and construction initiative by borrowing millions and using money meant for teacher pensions — shortcuts that Johnson says created later structural deficits. Others defend the spending as desperately needed at a time when pensions were fully funded.

“I toured a lot of schools where you couldn’t go into the locker room because they stank of urine,” says Chuck Burbridge, who served as CPS’ deputy chief financial officer under Vallas. “Windows didn’t keep the rain or snow out. The physical plant of Chicago public schools in the late ’90s was horrible.”

In recent years, lots of reforms from that era have fallen out of favor in Chicago. CPS has moved away from standardized testing and school ratings, reined in charter operators and has a moratorium on new charter schools — though many families still seek out charters and 56,000 of CPS’ 322,000 students attend them.

Many traditional neighborhood schools lost students and funding over the years as officials recruited families to charter and specialty schools or programs.

Enrollment at Dyett High School, for example, plummeted after nearby King College Prep was turned to selective enrollment in 2000 and Dyett had to convert to Kenwood’s neighborhood high school. Longtime organizer Jitu Brown says Dyett had previously been a successful middle school. Brown was outraged when CPS closed Dyett in 2015 and led a 34-day hunger strike to reopen the school.

“There were only seven books in the library,” Brown says of Dyett in the years after it became the neighborhood school. “There were no honors, no Advanced Placement” classes.

Vallas says he opened charters in Chicago and Philadelphia to relieve overcrowding, more of an expedient solution than an ideological stance.

“Rather than wait two years to get a school, sometimes I could get a school open quicker by basically opening a charter school,” Vallas says.

In Philadelphia, 45 charters had opened in the five years before Vallas’ 2002 arrival, public records show. When Vallas left in 2007, he had opened 22 more but says he turned away dozens more.

Haver, the retired Philadelphia teacher, says the district began using standardized tests punitively under Vallas, and that has been “really harmful to children” who wonder whether poor scores will lead their school to close or a charter to take over. 

“The wolf is always at the door,” she says.

Vallas was advertised as a financial expert who could turn around a financially struggling Philly district. But, while he says he balanced the budget, news reports and audits say he left the school district in financial disarray and with a $73 million deficit. Like Daley before them, Philadelphia leaders were disenchanted by Vallas at the end.

When Vallas moved to New Orleans, state officials hired him to bring in charter school operators. What resulted was a system of haves and have-nots, says parent Karran Harper Royal. She met with Vallas to advocate for a new neighborhood school in her Gentilly neighborhood. Despite student protests, three different charter operators have run the Greater Gentilly High School since it opened in 2009.

“Especially after a disaster, students didn’t need to be scattered all across the city, they needed to be in their neighborhoods,” Harper Royal says. “The children keep losing as we play merry-go-round with charter schools.”

Pastorek, the former Louisiana education chief, argues Vallas met the challenge “to create better schools, better options for students and to improve the quality of the schools.”

Vallas says he arrived to low test scores in each city and significantly raised them by the time he left.

New Orleans was Vallas’ peak, and after he left in 2011, he spent the rest of his career bouncing from one system to another. He traveled abroad to remake schools in post-earthquake Haiti and Chile. Then he became superintendent in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but was let go a year later after a judge ruled he had not fulfilled a state-mandated leadership certification to qualify for the job. Bridgeport paid him $4,500 a week through the end of his contract in 2014.

At that same time, his company, The Vallas Group, was hired to help reorganize the Indianapolis Public Schools. The Illinois State Board of Education paid him $311,000 to make recommendations in North Chicago, a troubled district ISBE had taken over. He advised closing almost half the schools and laying off a third of the teachers.

Former Republican Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner appointed Vallas in 2017 to the struggling Chicago State University’s Board of Trustees and later that year tried to elevate him to interim president — a controversial move at the majority Black school — but was overruled. Vallas became chief administrative officer instead and was ousted a year later.

Since then, Vallas helped found a new company still based at his address to bring bilingual teachers from Mexico to counter teacher shortages. Vallas is also listed as CEO of the Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy in Little Rock, a charter school he founded in 2021 and is currently accepting applications for teachers and students — part of his pro bono work, he says.

Brandon Johnson, teachers union organizer

In contrast with Vallas’ decades in the spotlight, Johnson’s story pushing for change and building coalitions in Chicago has happened on smaller scales in supporting roles. He hasn’t run any organizations, let alone school systems, that would leave a paper trail.

Brandon Johnson started his career as a teacher at Jenner Elementary in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood. Provided

Johnson, 46, is best known as part of the Chicago Teachers Union, who believe that schools will improve when fully funded and in neighborhoods with resources.

Johnson didn’t start teaching until age 31, after jobs with state legislators and the New City YMCA. Within four years, he traded teaching for CTU organizing.

The son of a preacher raised in Elgin, Johnson taught middle schoolers at Jenner Elementary in 2007, amid what remained of the Cabrini Green housing projects.

Nearly all Jenner students were Black, recalls Tara Stamps, who as middle school chair became a mentor for Mr. Johnson, fresh out of a master’s program in education.

He wore long dreadlocks and navy blue suits, forging connections with his 7th and 8th graders.

“He called them all by their last name to instill this deference and respect to them,” Stamps says. “He made them realize they were worthy of respect just as the principal was or his fellow teachers.”

As a professional, college graduate and husband, “He was such an example for them of just Black manhood.”

Johnson became a sports coach, founder of a boys-only book club: Real Boys Read. In his social studies classes, he added economics and geography lessons to fill in his students’ gaps.

Then CPS closed Schiller Elementary nearby — and moved its students to Jenner but reopened Schiller’s building as Skinner North Classical School for kids who could test in. (Eventually, Jenner merged with the whiter, wealthier Ogden International School.)

“The Black kids saw other kids going into their school after they had closed it down, which was cruel. We had to navigate the trauma, the rejection, the abandonment, the hurt, the blatant disregard for Black children’s feelings,” says Stamps, who also now works for the CTU. “Brandon was very skillful in doing that.”

Shrinking CPS enrollment cost Johnson his job at Jenner in 2010. He landed at Westinghouse College Prep High School, rebuilt a year earlier on the West Side under principal Janice Jackson, who became CPS CEO in 2017.

Johnson says that Jackson — who didn’t respond to interview requests — was tightly focused on the classroom, “on getting children ready for college. She had a slightly different perspective of what our collective response should be to education … I thought it was important for us to extend our work as teachers beyond the 45-minute block.”

Chicago Sun-Times
Brandon Johnson (center) speaks outside of Chicago Board of Education headquarters in December 2012 as schools officials sought to permanently close under-enrolled schools. Andrew A. Nelles / Chicago Sun-Times

A newly constituted CTU — one concerned with social justice issues beyond teacher pay — lured Johnson on staff in 2011. Then-president Karen Lewis tried to recruit a former student who taught at Westinghouse, but that student instead recommended his charismatic friend, Johnson.

Johnson calls teaching “still the best job ever” but says he also left to change “the fact that we have a stratified system where those who have, get more, and those with little, get closed.”

He registered as a lobbyist for the union briefly with the city, then the state, though his name doesn’t appear with other lobbyists on any legislation.

Johnson says he was instrumental in organizing in the lead up to Chicago Teachers Union strikes in 2012 and 2019. He was a public face opposing the mass school closings in 2013, mostly on the South and West sides where enrollment was lowest. A few weeks into a 2015 hunger strike to reopen Dyett High School, he joined activists already fasting.

An organizer in North Lawndale, Valerie Leonard, also actively fought against school closings, and saw Johnson at hearings on the West Side, working with parents.

“It was clear to me then, that he was really helping CTU to really go deeply with the parents and community groups,” she says.

Hundreds of Chicago teachers and supporters gathered downtown on Oct. 19, 2019, the first day of the teachers strike. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Leonard says she’s mostly agreed with the CTU, but questions their insistence on prolonged remote learning during the pandemic.

“I really do think that they could have figured out some way to get the kids in schools earlier,” she says. “Kids missed about two years of school, which probably set them three to four years behind, if they didn’t have tutoring or someone at home to really work with them. And in Lawndale, you had a lot of kids who didn’t have people who could work with them.”

Johnson has responded to attacks about CTU’s objection to in-person school during the pandemic by blaming the dangers of COVID-19 itself. Even when schools offered in-person learning in early 2021, just a quarter of eligible kids showed up.

His 12-point plan for improving schools focuses on building “sustainable community schools,” alongside affordable housing, and adding supports for immigrant children and those affected by violence. He has yet to publicize any price tag at a time when CPS is set to lose significant federal COVID relief funding that has been propping up its budget.

A leading critique charges Johnson as inseparable from the CTU, a potential conflict in 2024 when Chicago’s mayor will negotiate a new CTU contract.

“Will Brandon, if he’s elected mayor, be able to say that he is impartial? That he is fair? That, in negotiations with the union, that he’ll make the best decision for children and taxpayers as issues in education, in the Chicago public school system as other bargaining units come to the table to negotiate?” U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García asked the Sun-Times in February, while García still was one of eight mayoral challengers. On Friday, he endorsed Johnson.

Some critics also say the ultra-progressive CTU isn’t always aligned with communities that may have more conservative views. When the CTU joined student groups advocating for the removal of school police officers, more than half of schools voted to keep at least one.

The CTU largely bankrolled Johnson’s 2018 campaign to win a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners — which lacks authority over CPS — and they, and their state and national counterparts, are his major backers now, funneling millions to his mayoral campaign committee.

Plus, the union keeps paying him, between $83,000 and $103,000 a year, public records show.

Asked while campaigning where he might differ from CTU positions, Johnson answered, “What kind of question is that?”

Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick report for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.