Last night, Brandon Johnson, a progressive organizer and former public school teacher, beat out Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools executive with a tough-on-crime platform and a long-held affinity for charter schools, to be the next mayor of Chicago. The two men clashed over how to police the city and how to educate its children.
Education is a dominant issue in Chicago, where the public school system faces a dramatic enrollment decline. From 2019 to 2022, nearly 37,000 students—10 percent of the district’s population—fled the school system. This decline is likely due to lengthy COVID-related school closures, which kept Chicago public schools sporadically shuttered as late as January 2022.
Despite this dysfunction, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has remained a powerful political force that used member dues to fund Johnson’s campaign.
Johnson, currently a Cook County commissioner, gained the support of the CTU by promising to increase funding for Chicago’s public schools. Despite the enrollment declines, Johnson has vowed not to close under-enrolled schools and to provide funding based upon “student and community needs” rather than on a per-pupil basis. This strategy would pump funding into schools with dwindling student populations. According to public records obtained by the Chicago Sun–Times, the Chicago Teachers Union pays Johnson between $83,000 and $103,000 annually.
In contrast, Vallas, CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, had a more critical view of Johnson’s focus on increased funding. He highlighted the misuse of school dollars, writing on his website that “Right now only 60% of funds reach the classroom,” yet “80% of CPS students [are] reading below grade level and less than 15% meeting grade proficiency standards.”
Crime was also a major issue during the campaign. While the CTU backed Johnson, Vallas received the endorsement of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. Vallas’ tough-on-crime attitude extends to his educational policies, where he stressed the need to increase school safety. Vallas has also been an ardent supporter of charter schools, serving as the CEO of a dozen military academy-style charter schools.
With Johnson’s election, the political influence of the Chicago Teachers Union will continue to grow. “CTU already has outsized power compared to any other union or special interest group because unlike the police or the firefighters or transit workers, they have the right to strike,” Forrest Claypool, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO told Politico “They also have an outsized impact on working families who have no other choice on where to send their children . . . that power, combined with a mayor who is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary, would make them a dangerous force.”