The era of mayoral control has unleashed havoc upon public education in Chicago, nationally and internationally. And the move to privatize and measure schools with high stakes tests as a means to punish and close them was started by none other than current mayoral candidate and front-runner Paul Vallas.
Vallas became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 1995, with no education experience whatsoever, after serving as Mayor Richard Daley’s budget director. That was the same year the state legislature established mayoral control of the district. He boasts that as CEO he kept educators and schools “accountable,” but conveniently ignores the decades-long destabilization of Black and Latine schools and communities he set in motion.
The seeds for the record 2013 school closings imposed by then mayor Rahm Emanuel were sown by Paul Vallas 18 years earlier. Our families and schools are still reeling from that disastrous decision, which failed to produce the alleged cost savings for taxpayers or educational benefits for students.
It was also Vallas’ reign that launched a tsunami of non-union contract and charter schools that multiplied facility and administrative costs for the district while he promoted vouchers and the dismantling of public education as we know it. His school turnaround model, under which the entire school staff is fired, eliminated hundreds of mostly Black union jobs. Vallas spared no one, not teachers, lunchroom staff, building engineers, or security guards.
Vallas also spent four years fighting homeless students’ rights and violating law. CPS had agreed to a settlement with homeless advocates, but Vallas refused to enforce it, arguing that it would allow those advocates, whom he deemed “special interests,” to run the district. Despite the support for students and teachers Vallas now claims on the campaign trail, his actions speak louder than words.
Late in the campaign, Vallas’ true political leanings have taken center stage, with the candidate being forced to defend against attacks that he is a closet Republican. But Vallas’ Trump-like rhetoric, depicting Chicago as a dystopia in a free fall while at the same time playing footsie with right wing organizations like Awake Illinois, show his true colors. Vallas’ refrain that his campaign “is about taking back our city, pure and simple“ sounds a lot like former gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey and other right-wing, MAGA Republicans.
Additionally, Chicago teachers’ pensions were in good shape, funded at over 90 percent, until Vallas took over CPS. He worked with the mayor to change state law so the district could skip pension payments, which it did for the next 10 years. We have Vallas to thank for the pension crisis we face today and the exorbitant property taxes Chicagoans pay to fix the system.
Once Vallas was done destabilizing Chicago public schools, he took his privatization show on the road with similarly disastrous results, and short tenure, in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Bridgeport, CT, and Haiti, school systems that couldn’t wait for him to leave.
We can be confident that the public education chaos that has come to define Vallas’ career will be exponentially more dangerous the more power he wields. We must ensure that our candidate, Brandon Johnson, is in the run-off for mayor on April 4 so we can, once again, send Vallas packing.