Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is starting to roll out an ambitious education plan.
As a former organizer for the ultra progressive teachers union, this is where Johnson
wants to leave his mark.
He envisions a system where there are no losers — a radical idea in an under-resourced district where some kids are relegated to schools of last resort.
And he’s putting Springfield on notice — he wants the state of Illinois to pay for it.
Reporters from WBEZ and the Chicago Sun Times sat down with Johnson recently in his fifth-floor City Hall office to talk about his plans.
Note: This interview and order of questions has been edited for brevity and clarity
Your goal is to fully fund all schools and in particular to invest in neighborhood schools. In your view, what does it actually mean to invest in neighborhood schools?
I’m steadfast in making sure that every single family in the city of Chicago has an opportunity to have a fully resourced, equitable education. Now, I know that there are individuals that are using my position as a way to create fear. And I know that there are individuals who profit off of fear.
But let me assure people that — whether it’s a selective enrollment school or magnet school — we will continue to invest in those goals. In fact, my children actually attend magnet schools. And all I’m simply saying is that where education is working, in particular at our selective enrollment schools and our magnet schools, my position is like any other parents in Chicago: that that type of programming should work in all of our schools. And that has not been the case.
Neighborhood schools have been attacked, they have been demonized and they’ve been disinvested in and Black and brown children overwhelmingly send their children to those schools. So it’s not just demonizing and disinvesting in Black and brown schools, it’s demonizing and disinvesting in Black and brown people — and not under my administration.
What is the fear or concern over selective enrollment schools?
What we have to work through in a city is the mindset that the only way someone can win is at the expense of someone else losing. That has been the model forever in Chicago. It’s incumbent upon me as the mayor of the city of Chicago to ensure that [selective enrollment families] have everything that they deserve as well.
What has happened in the city of Chicago is selective enrollment schools go after students who perform academically on paper. It’s a very narrow view of education. [Let’s] also ensure that other areas of need are also highlighted and lifted up. That’s arts, our humanities, technology, trades. The real transformation that we want to see is that instead of having the zero sum, that we develop an education system [that] supports a variety of talents and gifts. If we can do that, the 21st-century world is going to be in much better hands.
When you say you won’t close schools, you only mention selective enrollment and magnet schools. What about charter schools?
Look, charter schools educate a good number of our children. The Board of Education just renewed charter schools. Do I believe in privatization? No. There are families that have relied upon charter schools because neighborhood schools have been defunded. I don’t believe that you can have a real equitable system when you are pitting neighborhoods against neighborhoods, school types against other school types.
Whether it’s selective enrollment, whether it’s magnet, whether it’s a charter school or whether it’s a neighborhood school, I believe that all of our children deserve access to a high-quality, fully functioning public education system. I don’t apologize for my value system, however, that leaving education to chance, a lottery system to determine whether or not a child will have a librarian … that is the meanest thing ever invented.
Is it possible to keep the same portfolio of schools, including charters and selective enrollment schools, and also fully fund neighborhood schools? Doesn’t that spread resources too thin? [In his response, Johnson talked about a lack of state money for CPS rather than talking directly about CPS’s finances.]
I fought hard alongside community partners to establish a [state] funding formula [in 2017] so that we can actually address how we fund schools and that schools should be funded based upon need and not just simply enrollment. The problem is we don’t have funding that is actually attached to the formula. So we built a vehicle without putting gas in it. And so if we actually received what is proper, and due to the city of Chicago [from the state Legislature], we would have enough to continue to grow our programs.
The problem, though, that we’ve had historically is that we have not had complete cooperation between what families want, and the fifth floor [of City Hall to lobby in Springfield]. We finally have cooperation. And when you have one of the largest economies in the world right here in the city of my Chicago, the state of Illinois, there’s no excuses for not having a fully funded, equitable public school system.
If you can’t convince Springfield to pony up more money, what is your backup plan?
It’s not like we’re asking for anything radical. We’re talking about social workers, counselors, class sizes that are manageable. We’re talking about full wraparound services for treatment for families who are experiencing the degree of trauma that exist in this city. We’re also challenging the state of Illinois to recognize that as our English-language learners population grows, that there’s support there, that individuals with disabilities, that those families have real accessibility within our public school system. Anything short of ensuring that Chicago Public Schools has everything that it deserves and needs is not acceptable.
But you don’t control Springfield. What is your backup plan?
To defund public education is a bad idea. That’s what it comes down to. Either we’re going to defund the school district or we’re going to fund it. Those are our two choices. For too long, politicians have come up with excuse after excuse of why we cannot fund public education. Public neighborhood schools were demonized. And where has it gotten us? We have vacancies, closures. We have population loss. There are people’s lives at stake.
You are demanding more money from Springfield, but isn’t there more you can do to run Chicago Public Schools more efficiently? The school district has some very small schools that some will say are inefficient.
We need to address it in a way that holds the community harmless. Now, are there bureaucratic structures that create a great deal of bottleneck? Of course. And is that something that the Board of Education in my administration would have to look closer at? Absolutely. But whether you are in a small school setting, or you are in a larger school setting, families still deserve a social worker and a counselor. The key is to make sure that the dollars reach the families … and it has to reach the families in a very meaningful way.
Do you support removing Chicago Police, known as school resource officers, from schools?
We are obviously moving in a direction to create a more holistic environment for safety. Right now, with over 600 schools, I believe we only have 39 schools that have SROs in them. Schools that do move towards a holistic approach, towards creating a safe, healthy environment, there will be investments available for them, whether it’s providing restorative justice counselors, security guards. So we’re moving away from this sort of one-sided, upside-down approach towards safe school environments and investments in alternative approaches.
The Board of Education is moving in the direction that I do support [of ending the SRO contract with the Police Department]. There is an intergovernmental agreement between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Police Department. To end that agreement, there’s no qualms for me there.