DOWNTOWN — Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas showed stark contrasts in their plans for Chicago schools as the two mayoral candidates squared off in a forum Saturday.
Johnson is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who has been backed by the teachers union, while Vallas was CEO of the district. The two received the most votes in a crowded mayoral field during the Feb. 28 election and are headed to the April 4 runoff.
The two sparred during Saturday’s Chicago Women Take Action Alliance women’s mayoral forum, discussing education, safety, child care and other issues. The forum was moderated by Cheryl Corley and Joan Esposito.
Johnson and Vallas said they want to expand the types of programs offered at schools and offer more services for students and their communities, including resources for addressing trauma.
Vallas said he wants to provide more options for students by expanding magnet schools and implementing more work-training programs to increase enrollment. He said he supports school choice vouchers and wants to empower local school councils and principals so they can make more decisions instead of relying on the city’s school board.
“I want to push the funding down toward the local school level,” Vallas said. “Why do we need a macro, citywide council to make all the decisions that should be made at a local level? We have elected local school councils and we need to do more to empower them.”
But Johnson said fully investing in neighborhood schools is the only way to ensure education is equitable for everyone in Chicago. He dismissed school choice vouchers as “politics of the old” that contributed to segregation and division.
“We have to recognize how the system has failed,” Johnson said. “There’s enough for everyone. No one should lose at the expense of someone winning. Picking people out to give them ‘opportunity’ while you leave other people behind will not be part of my administration.”
Johnson’s 12-point plan for improving public schools includes overhauling the school funding formula so it is based on community needs, he said. The current CPS plan heavily focuses on enrollment as for determining school funding.
Both candidates said they want to improve the city’s social services network by developing more affordable housing and increasing access to health care, addiction treatment and other resources for addressing the traumas people face in the city.
That led to the two trading barbs over how such programs could be funded — and what role taxes will play in their plans.
Johnson said he wants to collaborate with the state and county governments to increase funding for these services — including free child care for all.
Johnson said his relationships with local officials will help him convince them investing in Chicago will benefit the state as a whole — and said Vallas will struggle because he is actually more of a Republican.
“You have to have a Democrat that’s going to work with other Democrats,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be harder for Paul; it just will be.”
Vallas said officials shouldn’t rely too heavily on money from other government agencies, and he said one of his strengths is he works well with Republicans and Democrats. He’s faced scrutiny from some Chicagoans for skewing more conservative and for criticizing Democrat leaders.
“Working in collaboration is critically important, but you have to control your own destiny,” Vallas said. “Rebuilding social services at the local level is at the core of improving the local economy.”
Johnson criticized Vallas, saying he has not yet released a comprehensive budget plan, and said Vallas has reframed his conservative ideals to get elected.
Johnson’s pledged not to increase property taxes and said he supports the Bring Chicago Home Act, which would fund housing for people experiencing homelessness by increasing taxes on expensive real estate transfers. His plan also promises to bring back the Big Business Head Tax for companies that perform at least half of their work in Chicago, and it says he’d raise money through tax increases on airlines, hotels and securities trading, with the changes focused on taxing wealthier people and industries.
But Vallas said Johnson’s plan for the budget is “unrealistic.” Vallas said he plans to first examine the current mayor’s budget before releasing more specifics, though he plans to divert money from privatization and put it toward providing more city services in-house.
Instead of supporting the Bring Chicago Home Act, Vallas said he would use tax-increment financing (TIF) money to fund affordable housing. He said he would reduce bureaucratic obstacles to repurposing vacant buildings for public resources.
Vallas said his budget plans are based around using the city’s current revenue in a more efficient way.
“I’ve managed multi-billion-dollar budgets. I’ve balanced multi-billion dollar budgets without raising property taxes,” Vallas said. “I’m not going to raise property taxes, and I’m going to try to avoid other taxes and fees at least until I’ve gone through the process of assessing the spending.”
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