School & District Management

What the Election of Chicago’s New Mayor Says About the Political Power of Teachers’ Unions

By Libby Stanford — April 05, 2023 6 min read
Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson celebrates with supporters after defeating Paul Vallas in the mayoral runoff election on April 4, 2023, in Chicago.
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Brandon Johnson is a former middle school teacher, a teachers’ union organizer, and now Chicago’s next mayor.

Teachers’ union organizers say his narrow victory over a former city schools executive and charter school champion in the city’s April 4 mayoral runoff election represents a transformational moment for education for the nation’s fourth largest school district.

Johnson’s victory in many ways represents a rejection of the common reforms that have characterized public education in Chicago and much of the rest of the nation over the past two decades-plus. He’ll take office as Chicago sunsets mayoral control of its schools, ending a reform that took root in the 1990s. And he firmly opposed the pro-charter school and school choice policies that his opponent pushed as the first CEO of Chicago schools under mayoral control and the head of three other urban school districts.

Johnson secured 51.42 percent of the vote against Paul Vallas, who served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, according to unofficial results from the city of Chicago. He won with major backing from the Chicago Teachers Union as it has branched out beyond education issues to push for improvements to public health, affordable housing, and police reform.

“Make no mistake about it, Chicago is a union town,” Johnson said during his victory speech on April 4.

As an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, Johnson led coalitions to prevent efforts to expand charter schools, oppose standardized testing, and push for more state funding.

He plans to continue those efforts as mayor by expanding community schools where students can access health care and social services in addition to academics. He vowed not to close neighborhood schools, a contentious issue in Chicago, where the city’s school board closed 50 schools serving predominantly Black and Hispanic students under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013.

Johnson said he will foster “a city where public schools have the resources to meet the needs of every child across this city.”

“I know what it’s like to teach in Cabrini-Green, where my students can see one of the wealthiest neighborhoods from their back window, but out of their front windows, bulldozers stare them down, preparing to destroy their public housing,” he said during Tuesday night’s speech, referring to the public housing complex where he taught.

A major win for teachers’ unions

The Chicago Teachers Union, Illinois Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, and the Illinois Education Association all endorsed Johnson. He also won the support of non-education unions, including the Illinois Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as well as their local chapters.

Johnson’s win “sent that message that people embrace public schooling, and they embrace teachers and they embrace unions,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in an interview. “Brandon Johnson would not have won if the majority of people in Chicago did not feel that embrace and welcoming of the values that we represent, which is the values of a better life for all.”

For the past decade, the CTU has worked to combine teacher advocacy with issues outside of the classroom, pushing for more affordable housing, better public health, and public safety reform, President Stacy Davis Gates said in an interview.

“Our members both live in the city and work in the city,” Davis Gates said. “We are moving our families here. We are property owners here. And we have needs as residents and as neighbors ... We are as deeply invested in this city as anyone.”

Johnson, as well as the CTU, has taken a stance against the education reforms that began during Vallas’ tenure as Chicago schools’ CEO in the mid-90s. Vallas led the system after the Illinois legislature, then controlled by Republicans, placed the city’s schools under mayoral control, and he championed the expansion of charter schools. Davis Gates sees Emanuel’s decision to close 50 public schools a decade ago as part of that series of reforms.

She said she’s hopeful Johnson will be able to use his position as mayor to directly confront inequities in the school system—using his firsthand knowledge and credibility as a former teacher in the system.

As mayor, Johnson plans to expand bilingual education; develop pipelines to recruit and retain teachers, school clinicians, and other school staff; and work with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state legislators to overhaul the district’s funding, which currently operates under a student-based budgeting model giving each student an equal amount of per pupil funds. Johnson is a proponent of a funding model that allocates money based on student and community needs, according to his education plan.

“Brandon is a middle school teacher who understood very early in his career the intersection of injustice and inequity in Chicago Public Schools,” Davis Gates said. “He was faced with the consequences and the impact of educating children who were watching their homes being demolished at the same time they were in class.”

Johnson’s win is a major disappointment for school choice advocates. Throughout his campaign, Vallas was a strong proponent of charter schools. Establishing charter and magnet schools as well as military-style academies was a major part of Vallas’ work when he led the school system. He used a similar approach in his years leading the school systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

If he were elected, Vallas had pledged to lift the city’s enrollment cap on charter schools.

“This could lead to the undoing of 122 [Chicago] charter schools over time or the shackling of them,” said Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for school choice.

Finn also worries about the city’s teachers’ union having outsized control over school policy with Johnson’s election as the union has been vocally opposed to charter schools and other school choice measures.

“The biggest problem with the Chicago Public Schools for as long as I have been watching them, which is several decades, has been the teachers’ union,” Finn said. “It is the main negative force in Chicago education.”

A transitional time for Chicago schools

Over the next four years, Johnson will have to oversee the city’s transition from a mayoral-control school system to one that will be governed by an elected school board.

Since 1995, the city’s mayor has appointed all of Chicago Public Schools’ seven board members. Starting in 2027, the end of Johnson’s first term, voters will decide who represents them on a 21-person school board.

While only a small number of school districts are governed by mayors, Chicago is the first major urban district to depart from the model after it became popular in the 1990s. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia school districts all operate under a mayoral control model.

Johnson advocated for the 2021 Illinois law that establishes the new school board. Even so, the task will be a challenge for Johnson, who will have to lead the development of the new election-based system.

In a questionnaire with Chalkbeat Chicago earlier this year, Johnson said he’ll support campaign finance rules to prevent “uber rich, arch-conservatives [from] usurping the power that working people in Chicago fought so hard to win.”

Davis Gates said she hopes Johnson’s election will mean that the transition process isn’t hostile.

“We’re going to need partnership to usher in a school board that will have the infrastructure necessary to do well and create school policies democratically,” she said. “He will be a partner in figuring out how we guide a city that anchors its aspirations in public education.”

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