Vallas and Johnson clash on school choice, fueling different donor bases in mayor’s race

Paul Vallas promises to expand school choice while Brandon Johnson says it deepens segregation and inequity. Donors are lining up on either side.

Paul Vallas, right, is a former Chicago Public Schools CEO who champions school choice. Brandon Johnson is an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, which has fought against charter schools and public support for private school scholarships. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
Paul Vallas, right, is a former Chicago Public Schools CEO who champions school choice. Brandon Johnson is an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, which has fought against charter schools and public support for private school scholarships. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Vallas and Johnson clash on school choice, fueling different donor bases in mayor’s race

Paul Vallas promises to expand school choice while Brandon Johnson says it deepens segregation and inequity. Donors are lining up on either side.

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Chicago voters will decide between two mayoral candidates with distinctive visions for the city’s schools. Paul Vallas is a longtime advocate for school choice, including support for charter schools and channeling public money for private school scholarships. Brandon Johnson is an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union and a passionate advocate for building up traditional public schools.

Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, led with 33% of the vote. Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner and former CPS teacher, who was endorsed by the CTU, secured a spot in the April 4 runoff with 22%.

Their divergent views on education, among other issues, are helping fuel vastly different campaign donor bases — with nearly all of Johnson’s money from labor unions while Vallas is funded primarily by individual donors, with his largest donations from people in finance.

School choice is the basic idea that children should have options beyond their assigned public school, either in the private or public school system, if their home school isn’t performing or isn’t a good match.

A strong emphasis on school choice has waned in Chicago in recent years, particularly around publicly funded but privately run charter schools. Charter expansion in CPS has ground to a halt amid declining CPS enrollment and concerns by the teachers union and others that charters draw resources away from traditional public schools. There are also concerns that adding choice within CPS, such as opening specialty programs and schools, including many with admissions requirements, further stratifies CPS.

Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has dropped by about 81,000 over the last decade. Here, students at National Teachers Academy gather on the first first day on class in August, 2021. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Vallas, who led CPS from 1995 to 2001, has promised to expand school choice. “We need to make sure every neighborhood school is a quality school,” he said in a recent debate. But he has long pushed for giving families, particularly low-income families, options.

This includes charters, as well as a range of different kinds of schools within the district. Vallas has long railed against the bureaucracy, mandates and union rules that he believes stifle innovation in traditional public schools.

As CEO, Vallas oversaw the openings of the city’s first charters and test-in high schools, including Northside College Prep and Payton College Prep, and 15 International Baccalaureate programs in traditional schools. This set the stage for a transition from a neighborhood system of schools to the city’s current choice model.

“By … allowing students the option of actually enrolling in those community-based magnet programs, we transformed a huge number of high schools,” Vallas argued in a recent debate. “So my priority [now] would be focused on expanding traditional public choice, and supporting corporate investments in the scholarship program,” he said, referring to Illinois’ tax tax credit scholarship program.

That five-year-old program, known as “Invest in Kids,” allows taxpayers to donate money toward private or parochial school scholarships for students from lower-income families. In exchange, donors get a tax credit, which diverts money from state coffers.

In Chicago, all students are assigned a neighborhood school but, starting in earnest under Vallas, a broad range of new schools and programs have emerged. Now, the vast majority of teens do not attend their neighborhood high school.

Johnson, an organizer on staff for the CTU since 2011, has sharply different views on choice. Asked by WBEZ if CPS should “remain a system of choice with selective enrollment, magnet and charter schools serving a significant share of students rather than neighborhood schools,” Johnson answered “No.”

“Specialty requirements and specialty labeling of schools isn’t choice,” Johnson wrote, citing the reduced percentage of low-income Black students at test-in schools after race was dropped in 2009 as a factor in admissions as a result of a court ruling. “Parents and students should have a range of school options, but we need to fund all schools equitably, and ensure that all families are receiving access to a world class education. And reform a system that continues to reproduce and deepen segregation and inequity.”

Johnson and the CTU are also strongly opposed to charter expansion, as well as using taxpayer dollars for private school scholarships. Johnson and the union argue that low performance isn’t driven primarily by the school or school type but rather by a lack of investment in education and struggling communities.

“The people of Chicago are sick and tired of the experimentation on Black and brown and poor children when it comes to education,” Johnson said at a recent debate.

These sharply contrasting views on choice — as well as the candidates differing policies in other areas — are reflected in their campaign donations.

The vast majority of Johnson’s donations come from labor. He’s raised $6.7 million in direct contributions from labor since Oct. 1, with big donations pouring in since the Feb. 28 election, including $1.2 million from the Chicago Teachers Union political action committee. Many other labor donations are from the PACs of the Illinois and American Federation of Teachers, the parent unions of the CTU, and PACs of the Service Employees International Union. The CTU recently approved a plan that directs $8 in union dues per month to support Johnson in the runoff.

In contrast, among the millions raised by Vallas, including nearly $5.7 million since Feb. 28, there are few union donors. His list is dominated by individual donors, including a handful of people with connections to charter schools or organizations that support tax credit scholarships.

Two board members of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools have donated to Vallas’ mayoral campaign since October, including David Chizewer of the corporate law firm Goldberg Kohn. Chiwezer is a founder and past board president of the Chicago International Charter School, one of the city’s largest charter schools. He also co-founded INCS and said he’s supporting Vallas “because he’s put the focus on kids and families, as opposed to politics.”

“What’s important to me is that we don’t have someone in office who is biased against charters, or who is going to make decisions about schools based on their own political beliefs, or political power,” said Chizewer, who donated $1,000. “We need vibrant schools with great academic [and] social-emotional outcomes.”

Other Vallas donors with charter connections include Don Wilson, founder of the trading firm DRW, who donated $350,000 since October. He is a donor to Noble Street charter school, with a campus named for his company.

John Canning, founder and chairman of Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm, donated $100,000 since October. He’s on the president’s council of the LEARN Charter School Network and is listed as a member of the board of trustees of the Big Shoulders Fund, which grants scholarships to students from low-income families to attend Catholic schools. Five people listed as Big Shoulders board of trustees members also collectively donated more than $800,000 since October. This includes Gerald Beeson, chief operating officer at Citadel, a hedge fund. Canning and Beeson didn’t return calls or declined comment.

Big Shoulders is authorized by the state to administer the Illinois tax credit scholarship program.

No board members of the city’s largest charter schools or the Big Shoulders Fund have donated to Johnson, a review of campaign records from October through mid-March found.

The debate over school choice comes as interest in charters has declined in Chicago.

Chartes now serve roughly 54,000 of 322,000 city public schools students at 120 campuses across the city. This includes a few contract schools, which are similar to charters. Charters proliferated after Vallas left CPS, in Chicago and across the country. Charters also flourished in Philadelphia and dominated in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the school system — two cities where Vallas served as leader after leaving CPS.

INCS president Andew Broy says the current school board under Mayor Lori Lightfoot “has not been inclined” to support charter growth. Illinois caps the number of charter operators in the city at 60. But charter schools can still grow by replicating campuses. Acero Schools, for example, operates 12 elementary schools, two high schools and one K-12 school.

“Vallas knows firsthand the impact autonomous public schools can have on communities and neighborhoods in terms of academic performance, giving options to families and providing high-quality school choice,” Broy argued.

Chicago Sun-Times
Paul Vallas wants to lift an enrollment cap on ‘high-performing’ charter schools and grow the state’s tax credit private school scholarship program. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

The Chicago Board of Education also has been demanding greater accountability from charters for the last several years. In January, for example, when the board renewed contracts for 35 charter and contract schools, it issued shorter term lengths than in the past and new conditions for continued approval.

Vallas isn’t making charters a centerpiece of his education plan, and recently has said he thinks Chicago has enough charters. But under his education plan, Vallas says he wants to lift an enrollment cap on “high-performing charters” and he wants to invite charters to locate in the city’s empty or “near empty” school buildings so long as they serve neighborhood children. At debates, he repeatedly highlights that Chicago charters overwhelmingly serve students of color from low-income families.

In his education plan, Vallas also said he wants to expand options by “converting failing or under-enrolled schools” to “open enrollment magnet schools.”

Vallas also has ideas about how to grow the state’s Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program. In a Tribune op-ed a year ago, Vallas said the mayor can “direct the school board” to use the annual surplus from the city’s tax increment financing program to provide tuition support so families can send their children to private schools. He said those revenues could support families that have applied for the Invest in Kids program.

He also said the city can invite parochial and private schools to become contract schools and have the district contribute to or cover tuition for students who attend.

“School choice exists in Chicago. For people with money. But most parents cannot afford to pay private school tuition,” Vallas wrote in the Tribune op-ed. “Economically disadvantaged parents and guardians are then subject to de facto education ‘redlining,’ with the quality of a child’s school determined by his or her ZIP code. Families that want a different or better option but cannot afford one are out of luck.”

Chicago Sun-Times
Brandon Johnson opposes tax credit scholarships and vouchers, saying they set up ‘winners and losers.’ Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

When asked about vouchers during a recent debate, Johnson said the concept is rooted in discrimination and that it was designed by people who “did not want to have to participate in the public space with Black and brown and poor people.” Private school voucher programs arose in the Jim Crow-era South in the 1950s following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education that banned segregation in public schools.

“You can’t say that you’re trying to bring the city together when you continue to move policies that separate people. We are setting winners and losers. Public education shouldn’t be doing that,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he would “fully invest” in publicly funded neighborhood schools and that corporations should “pay their fair share in taxes” so the city can avoid raising property taxes on working people.

Nora Flanagan, a longtime English teacher at Northside College Prep, said she primarily supports Johnson because of his education platform, including his support for neighborhood schools and more equitable funding formulas. And she’s against funneling more money into charters and private schools, calling it “de facto segregation.”

Flanagan said she enjoys working at a selective enrollment school because she gets to teach students from every side of the city. But she acknowledges “very deep flaws” in the city’s enrollment process.

“I see how that system gets gamed and sometimes abused by people with more resources,” Flanagan said. “But the solution to that is, ‘let’s invest more in neighborhood schools,’ not close them, not starve them out, not punish them for the income level of the neighborhood.”

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Kate Grossman is WBEZ’s education editor. Follow them @WBEZeducation, @nereidamorenos and @KateGrossman1