Whoever wins an April 4 runoff, Chicago’s next mayor will be a former educator, and will be in charge of the city as the nation’s fourth-largest school district enters a new era.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a former public school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, and Paul Vallas, who served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, beat Mayor Lori Lightfoot and six other candidates in the Feb. 28 election for mayor.
Neither Johnson nor Vallas secured more than the necessary 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff, so Chicago voters will choose between the two on April 4. (Vallas received almost 34 percent of the first-round vote to Johnson’s 20.3 percent.)
While their conflicting stances on crime and policing have garnered the most attention, the rivals’ education priorities also represent starkly different sides of the national education debate, with Johnson firmly allied with the city’s teachers’ union and Vallas championing school choice.
In addition, Vallas or Johnson will become mayor as the city reverts to an elected school board. Chicago was one of the first major U.S. school districts to come under mayoral control—a popular education reform measure in some of the nation’s biggest cities in the 1990s and 2000s.
Their backgrounds in education don’t mean they have much in common
Vallas and Johnson may share backgrounds in education, but their approaches are starkly different. Vallas, who led school districts in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Conn., after Chicago, is in many ways the face of school executives Johnson has spent years fighting as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Johnson used his speech after polls closed on Feb. 28 to take aim at Vallas’ time as chief of schools, criticizing him for stopping regular payments to the teachers’ pension fund.
“As head of the Chicago Public Schools, he ran the teachers’ pension fund into the ground, closed neighborhood schools, and punished students who are in need,” Johnson said, adding claims that Vallas’s leadership in New Orleans, Connecticut, and Philadelphia also led to more privatization of schools. “He has literally failed everywhere he has gone.”
Vallas didn’t mention Johnson in his speech on election night. The former school district executive has focused his campaign on public safety, stating that it’s the No. 1 issue facing Chicago and promising to invest in and expand the city’s police force. A major part of improving public safety, Vallas said, is investments in schools.
“We will not have true public safety in this city until the schools become part of the public safety solution,” he said. “That means we need to have the type of educational quality and educational opportunities so that we can provide for a future for all of Chicago’s residents regardless of their income, regardless of their ZIP code.”
Chicago was the site of two school shootings last year, according to Education Week’s 2022 national school shooting tracker.
Vallas is advocating for more school options in his education agenda, specifically pointing to magnet schools. He also wants more oversight of school spending, criticizing current school leaders for failing to raise student performance.
Only 20 percent of Chicago students met or exceeded expectations in reading and 15 percent met or exceeded expectations in math in 2022, according to the Illinois State Report Card. (Chicago students in 3rd through 8th grades did show more growth than the average U.S. student from 2009 to 2014, according to a 2017 study from the Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis.)
Johnson, who is endorsed by the city’s teachers’ union, has prioritized investments in community schools that offer school-based health centers and trauma support for students and families affected by community violence. The former teacher also wants to prevent the closure of schools, especially those that primarily serve Black and Hispanic students, and increase preschool enrollment.
The next mayor will lose direct control of city schools
Chicago’s mayoral election is notable because it signals the beginning of the end for the city’s mayoral-control model of school governance.
Since 1995, Chicago’s mayor has appointed both the district’s chief executive officer and the entire school board. In fact, Vallas became the first appointed CEO, after then-Mayor Richard Daley tapped him for the job.
But that model will begin to change next year thanks to a 2021 law that requires the city to transition to a fully elected, 21-person school board by 2027.
The change makes Chicago the first major city to abandon the mayoral control model, which became popular in the ‘90s. City school districts in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia all operate under a mayoral control model.
The model has proven beneficial for some districts. A 2013 Center for American Progress study found that mayor-led districts had more resources per student, leading to lower student-to-teacher ratios and increases in student achievement.
But teachers’ unions and community organizers have decried the model, saying it gives mayors too much power and pushes school board members to ignore community desires.
“Students, families, and educators will now have the voice they have long been denied for a quarter of a century by failed mayoral control of our schools,” the Chicago Teachers Union wrote in a statement after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill to end mayoral control.
In Boston, residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of restoring an elected school board in 2021, but Mayor Michelle Wu last month vetoed a City Council-approved bill to make the switch.
The United States has seen more educators run for office in recent election cycles
Johnson’s candidacy follows recent midterm election cycles during which waves of teachers ran for office.
In 2018, for example, Education Week counted 177 teachers around the country who ran for state legislative seats, following a series of teacher strikes across the country demanding better pay and working conditions that were part of the Red for Ed movement.
In the last Congress, 113 U.S. House and Senate members had previously worked in education, according to the Congressional Research Service. And a handful of governors, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, have backgrounds as public school teachers and school leaders.
Teachers have been motivated to run to have a voice in solving a number of problems, such as teachers shortages in many parts of the country, worsening mental health among students, and gun violence in schools, said Katrina Mendiola, the national political director for the National Education Association. NEA trains its members on how to run for office through its See Educators Run program and has anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 members run each cycle.
“For a lot of [educators], it really is their students, and it really is the type of public education system that they want to create for their communities and their students” that motivate them to run, Mendiola said.