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Comparing Chicago’s 2023 Mayoral Candidates On 5 Key Education Issues

The next mayor will be the last to have control of the school district before it transitions to being governed by an elected school board. The runoff election is April 4.

Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas are going head to head in the April 4 mayoral runoff election.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Chicago voters are facing a choice between two mayoral candidates with vastly different backgrounds and views on education. 

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas has a long record managing urban school districts as an appointed bureaucrat. His opponent, Brandon Johnson, is a former middle school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer.

The next mayor will be the last to have control of the school district before it transitions to being governed by an elected school board. The city’s runoff election will be held on April 4.

Here is a side-by-side breakdown on where Vallas and Johnson stand on five key education issues:

Chicago Public Schools Finances

Johnson wants to overhaul the district’s current student-based budgeting system, which he argues has been harmful to schools. Basing school budgetson enrollment restricts individual campuses from giving students a full offering of programs and support, he’s said in the campaign trail. Instead, he favors an approach that fully funds school staff — including social workers, librarians, and nurses — regardless of enrollment.

When the district moves to an elected school board, schools will still require city support on services such as security measures, Johnson said. He would also advocate for more funding at the state level.

Vallas wants to get more funding directly to individual schools and out of central office. On the campaign trail, he has argued that only 60 percent of the district’s budget is currently making it to schools. Vallas favors a system that lets Local Schools Councils, elected members at each school, decide how funds are spent in their respective buildings. He also wants state funds such as Title I directly to assigned schools.

Measuring School Performance

Johnson disagrees with punishing low-performing schools. He doesn’t think the district needs its own rating system since the state already has one. He argues for more support and resources to ensure schools are meeting state standards.

Vallas supports accountability systems for students and schools — as evidenced by his track record in Chicago and elsewhere. Last month, Vallas said promoting students to high school who can’t read would have “catastrophic consequences.” He wants to keep schools open into the evening and weekend hours, and expand speciality programs at schools to help students improve academically. “We must set high standards, we have to measure schools based on their improvement as a school,” Vallas said.

Declining Enrollment

Johnson wants to build campuses that provide extensive support services for students and families, sometimes in partnerships with local nonprofits and other groups to reverse declining enrollment.

Johnson opposes closing under-enrolled schools or opening additional charters. Instead, he argues the district should embrace the small school model and use excess space to host on-site day cares or other services that can generate revenue.

Vallas believes schools can combat declining enrollment by offering specialized programs such as career and technical education.

Vallas favors using under-enrolled campuses as alternative schools for teenagers and young adults who have left the traditional school system. He has said charters could take over or share space with traditional schools that have space, but more recently said there are enough charters in Chicago.

Police In Schools

Johnson said police had no place in schools, especially in overpoliced communities. Stationing police in and around schools had not prevented violent incidents, he said in a questionnaire by WBEZ and the Sun-Times.

Vallas is in full support of police in schools to deter active shootings. In a WBEZ/Sun-Times questionnaire, Vallas said the “absence of officers places our kids at risk.”

Student Mental Health

Johnson said students need support, such as weekly cognitive behavioral therapy, jobs, and robust programming, to address traumas from COVID-19 and issues that pre-date the pandemic. He wants to bring in more “counselors and clinicians so that unaddressed trauma is acknowledged, and treated.”

Vallas wants to create community hubs at schools. Excess space could be used to offer after-school programs or house health clinics. Vallas also wants to identify “at-risk children on a school-by-school basis” and provide mentorship, tutoring, and other support.

Labor Relations

Johnson, who has been endorsed by the teachers union, says he would partner with the district and union leadership to avoid acrimonious relations. He’s been criticized for being too close with the union, but has argued he is representing working class people. He said there will be areas of disagreements.

Vallas negotiated two union contracts during his time at Chicago Public Schools and has said the most recent strike in 2019 and COVID-19 actions could have been avoided.

The city’s chief labor lawyer told the Chicago Sun-Times that Vallas’ “considerable powers of persuasion” helped end a years-long stalemate between the city and its police union in 2021. Still, if elected Vallas would confront a teachers union that has successfully pushed district management to bargain over social justice issues, such as affordable housing.

Elected School Board

Johnson, who advocated for the elected school board legislation, supports diverse representation on the school board. He is calling for campaign finance rules to prevent election interference. “We cannot have uber rich, arch-conservatives usurping the power that working people in Chicago fought so hard to win,” Johnson said in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire in February.

On the campaign trail, Vallas vowed to “aggressively” support candidates who agree with his vision for the public schools. “You can either complain that the school board is elected or you can get into the game and you can work to run candidates for the school board that you think are going to support your agenda,” he said in early February.

Key Education Endorsements

Johnson:

  • Dwayne Truss, former board member of the Chicago Board of Education
  • Chicago Teachers Union
  • Illinois Federation of Teachers
  • Columbia College Faculty Union
  • Cook County College Teachers Union
  • University of Illinois Chicago United Faculty
  • Faculty Forward Loyola University Chicago
  • University of Chicago Faculty Forward

Vallas:

  • Gery Chico, former president of Chicago Board of Education
  • Joyce Kenner, former principal of Whitney Young Magnet High School
  • Deborah Lynch-Walsh, former CTU president

Mila Koumpilova contributed to this report.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org. Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.  

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.