Mayor Brandon Johnson’s sprint to remake Chicago’s public schools

With an elected school board coming, Johnson’s appointed board is pushing for more funding and changes on school choice and police in schools.

Mayor Brandon Johnson in his office on the fifth floor of City Hall, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.
Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, wants the school district to focus resources on neighborhood schools. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
Mayor Brandon Johnson in his office on the fifth floor of City Hall, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.
Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, wants the school district to focus resources on neighborhood schools. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s sprint to remake Chicago’s public schools

With an elected school board coming, Johnson’s appointed board is pushing for more funding and changes on school choice and police in schools.

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A time-worn phrase has dominated Chicago’s education scene for the past decade: “Fully fund neighborhood schools.” Yet it hasn’t translated into policy.

Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said it in her fiery speeches. Parents shout it when fighting the closure of an unprecedented 50 public schools. Community groups chant it when schools face budget cuts.

Today, Mayor Brandon Johnson is declaring it from City Hall’s fifth floor. But he now represents the progressive education movement’s first chance at following through with those demands.

It won’t be an easy ride. Chicago Public Schools has a nearly $400 million structural deficit. There’s opposition from those who support Chicago’s system of school choice, where 70% of kids go to a high school other than the one in their neighborhood.

And come January the city’s first elected school board — which Johnson and the CTU lobbied to create — will take control of the public schools, distancing the mayor from influence. Johnson has already faced difficulty pursuing other progressive priorities given Chicago’s migrant crisis and its costs — leaving schools as a key area where he can build his legacy.

That makes this a pivotal year for Johnson’s plan to remake CPS.

He already approved plans for the removal of police officers next year from 39 schools that still have them. The Board of Education is also rethinking how money is distributed to schools and has declared a shift away from prioritizing school choice. And while Johnson has promised not to close charter, selective enrollment or magnet schools, his board is holding publicly funded but privately managed charters more accountable and scrutinizing how admissions and funding policies affect accessibility.

“My overall vision for public education is pretty straightforward — that regardless of a child’s race, income or ZIP code, that they deserve a high-quality, fully resourced, equitable, healthy and safe learning environment,” Johnson said in an interview last week.

“I’m uniquely positioned to actually provide a more transformative state of public education,” the former CTU organizer and teacher said.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson greets Ayden Payne, 11, an incoming sixth grader during a back-to-school event at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the West Side, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Mayor Johnson greeted Ayden Payne, a sixth grader during at Crane Medical Prep High School on the West Side in Aug. 2023. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

The debate over school choice in Chicago

A common criticism on the campaign trail has followed Johnson to the mayor’s office: He often speaks in platitudes, and his plans often lack specificity.

The ramifications were clear in December when public fear quickly spread after Johnson’s appointed Board of Education directed CPS officials to reprioritize neighborhood schools over the system of school choice.

“I hear you want to take away my school entirely — the school that is regularly rated the No. 1 elementary school in all of Illinois,” Aria Haque, a sixth grader at Keller Regional Gifted Center, told board members in December.

Charter school proponents also accuse Johnson and the board of opposing charters and contract schools, which are a key part of CPS’s choice system with about 53,000 students mostly on the South and West Sides.

Johnson said he opposes privatization, but he doesn’t plan to close any schools. He blamed the public’s understanding on “individuals who want to incite fear.”

“Let me assure people that, whether it’s a selective enrollment school, [charter] or magnet school, we will continue to invest in those schools,” Johnson said. “All I’m simply saying is that where education is working, in particular our selective enrollment schools and our magnet schools, that that type of programming should work in all of our schools, and that has not been the case.”

Activists have accused past administrations of neglecting economically disadvantaged communities’ needs to usher limited resources to middle class families to prevent them — and their taxes — from fleeing to the suburbs.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said she sees school choice as an illusion — of course families will choose other options if neighborhood schools aren’t as well funded. That’s why the CTU will seek staffing minimums in negotiations ahead of its contract expiration in June, she said.

“Our bargaining agreement has to enshrine the base level of what every public school student should expect to have at CPS schools,” she said. “And in order for there to be choice, you have to have a baseline.”

In its 2019 deal, the CTU secured a nurse and social worker for every school, though finding people for those positions has been difficult. This time, with a friendly mayor in Johnson, it might be easier to include roles like librarians, counselors, arts teachers and more.

If those jobs are inked in a contract, it’ll be harder for a future administration to change direction.

CPS in the recent past has provided grants for low-enrollment schools and money for specialty programs such as fine arts or STEM in neighborhood schools.

But those haven’t been the systemic changes Johnson wants.

“What we have to work through in this city is the mindset that … the only way someone can win is at the expense of someone else losing,” Johnson said. “And that has been the model forever in Chicago.”

Some worry going further means other school types will receive less money in a district with constrained resources. Critics of the mayor also accuse the board of forcing its vision without fully engaging families.

The district says it’ll hold community meetings as it develops a five-year strategic plan. And officials have said their vision is supported by years of parent activism, education research and changes already made toward an equitable distribution of resources.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said it’s “tone deaf” for Johnson’s board — which he criticizes as an “activist board” — to make big decisions that might “bind the hands” of the new elected board.

“I don’t buy this notion that somehow it’s still a wide open, community-based process. No, it’s not,” Broy said. “This board has a very particular view of things, and they want to implement the plan that way. And the fact they’re doing it right before a new board comes in, I think shows that they’re worried about what might happen when a future board comes in.”

Andrew Broy, president of the lIlinois Network of Charter Schools speaks during a panel discussion at the City Club of Chicago.
Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools Richard Chapman / Chicago Sun-Times

Looking for money to fully fund Chicago neighborhood schools

As former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS were closing a record 50 buildings in 2013, they unveiled a new way to distribute money to schools. Instead of a minimum of positions, schools would get a set sum per child enrolled.

A decade later — and after research showing that student-based budgeting has sent many majority-Black schools with declining enrollment into a downward spiral — Johnson’s administration is expected to usher in a new funding formula this spring in what may amount to his signature policy change to date.

But again, details are sparse. School-level budgets are usually released in March.

CPS could adopt a plan similar to the state of Illinois’ funding formula, which since 2018 has doled out new state spending to districts based on students’ needs, such as how many live in poverty, are unhoused and need special education services.

The state’s plan has increased funding over time, but it isn’t making the impact many hoped for since state officials admit they’re still billions short of adequately serving students. CPS is $1.1 billion short each year.

Johnson and the CTU’s vision for investing in neighborhood schools also includes bringing in community organizations to complement a school’s curriculum and offer services to families beyond education. The sustainable community schools model has shown some success in schools with declining enrollment.

Mayor Brandon Johnson at his City Hall office in January 2024.
Mayor Johnson hasn’t shared a Plan B if extra state money doesn’t come through for CPS. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

But CPS doesn’t have enough for current expenses, much less for funding more.

The last of CPS’s pandemic relief funding will be used this fall, exposing an estimated $391 million deficit. A nearly $700 million hole emerges the following year.

Johnson, CPS leaders, the CTU, and community and fiscal groups are all aligned on lobbying the state for adequate funding. But Illinois has its own money problems and has already signaled it won’t be much help this year. Johnson hasn’t shared a Plan B if the state doesn’t come through.

Without more money, it’s difficult to avoid the winners-and-losers approach Johnson laments.

Joe Ferguson, president of the taxpayer watchdog Civic Federation and former city inspector general, said he wants to see clear financial projections that inform the public how the district will achieve its goals. Without that, he worries too many major changes this year will amount to “saddling a new governing body with obligations and commitments that would crush it coming out of the gate.”

“I understand that some of the objective here with funding neighborhood schools is to draw people back into the system and back into the neighborhoods that include those underpopulated schools,” Ferguson said. “But that doesn’t happen overnight … And in the meantime, costs are being incurred.

“This is where transparency and leadership that clearly articulates what the priorities are … is really important,” he said.

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