Chicago’s mayoral runoff is a battle between ideological opposites, in an election centered around the issue of rising crime. However, Former CEO of CPS Paul Vallas’ history of underinvestment in communities most affected by crime underscores that he is not prepared to address the root causes of Chicago’s crime problems.
Chicago’s mayoral election ended last month in a historic third-place finish for incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who conceded late on election night. Despite her landslide win in the 2019 runoff, the mayor’s approval ratings continuously sank lower during her four-year term. Spikes in crime, her handling of the 2020 George Floyd protests, and her tense relationship with the City Council and local unions, especially the Chicago Teachers’ Union, have taken a toll on her public approval ratings.
The driving force behind her failed re-election bid was the disparity Chicagoans saw between the candidate Lori Lightfoot and the mayor Lori Lightfoot. In 2019, Lori Lightfoot ran as a political outsider and progressive reformer intent on investing in the South and West sides and upending the notorious Chicago political machine. Although even the most dedicated elected officials don’t fulfill every campaign promise, Mayor Lightfoot seemed to become a different person after her inauguration. Her fulfillment of promises to reduce crime or increase city investment in under-resourced communities have been considered lackluster. The mayor took a heavy-handed approach in her relations with City Council, local unions, and demonstrators during the 2020 racial injustice protests, all while maintaining a poor relationship with the state government. She chose to crack down harshly on striking workers and peaceful protesters rather than on the corruption she had promised to fight against. The mayor even faced ethics complaints related to her campaign offering class credit to students willing to volunteer for her reelection effort. All this led to her failure to secure a spot in the April runoff, a face-off between former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.
The two candidates espouse polar opposite ideas on 2023’s hot-button issue: how to fix rising crime in the city. Vallas, a conservative Democrat with the endorsement of the controversial Fraternal Order of Police, promises to restore “law and order” to the city, fill police vacancies, and allow officers to engage in “proactive policing.” Johnson, a progressive candidate, has supported shifting resources to fund the use of mental health professionals in non-violent crime situations and increasing accountability and transparency in the Chicago Police Department. Although both candidates’ messaging on crime resonated better with voters than Mayor Lightfoot’s performance over the past four years, the election of conservative Vallas may suggest more disaster for the city than the previous administration could ever have accomplished. Mr. Vallas has capitalized on increasing fear due to rising crime levels, but his track record in addressing the issues that cause crime is abysmal. Even though he promises to rescue Chicago from the crime challenges it faces, his policies on education and finance will devastate the city.
Vallas’ public safety platform is focused on hiring more police officers, increasing police funding, and encouraging officers to take a more “proactive” approach to policing. He has been highly critical of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Police Superintendent David Brown, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s response to rising crime, especially downtown. He has been outspoken about the city’s leniency on “looting and rioting.” His tough-on-crime stance has taken hold with voters, especially among white, working-class voters on the far northwest and southwest sides.
However, Vallas’ plans to improve public safety ignore the root of the problem: a severe lack of investment in the most underserved areas of the city. Vallas’ platform and prior stances on issues like public education directly contradict the high level of public investment needed to solve issues of violence within Chicago.
Paul Vallas has always been an ardent proponent of school choice, consistently backing “alternative” options that would divert funding from public schools and further privatize education. Vallas has proposed using school vouchers, though he relabels them as “scholarships” to avoid association with other conservative politicians. School vouchers hurt students, especially those from low-income households. Voucher programs further starve public schools of much-needed funding while funneling tax dollars into private schools that are not accountable to the public or curriculum standards.
Supporters of vouchers, like Trump’s former Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, say they help low-income children escape failing public schools. Vouchers may have negative effects on the educational outcomes of recipients. A study on DC’s voucher program found participants in the program performed worse on standardized tests within a year than their peers that remained in public schools. Similar evaluations have shown that programs across the country have had neutral or negative outcomes for student achievement. Coupled with the potential withdrawal of funds for public schools, negative educational outcomes for voucher recipients will further deprive communities of much needed free school programs and educational opportunities. Lack of educational opportunity correlates with higher criminal activity, showing Vallas’ lack of concern for the causes of crime within the city.
Vallas has long been an advocate for the privatization of school districts. He oversaw the opening of the first charter schools in Chicago in 1996, and he led efforts to privatize education in his roles in New Orleans and Philadelphia. New Orleans, touted as one of Vallas’ greatest successes and a model charter school system in the years after Katrina, has faced a mountain of struggles caused by the switch to a mostly private school system. Although testing proficiency has gone up significantly since the reforms, the reasons for this may not be as they seem. Targeted suspensions and “counseling out” of students that are expected to perform low on standardized tests have warped the district’s test scores. Counseling out refers to the practice of charter school counselors asking students who are expected to perform poorly on standardized testing to leave the school. Special education students have suffered immensely from this, leading to several lawsuits and forcing the state of Louisiana to intervene. Many students dropped out or did not re-enroll after the transition, and the decentralization of the charter system meant that no one was keeping track of them. Parents without knowledge of the application process had their kids end up in lower-performing schools, spurring inequality in the improvement rates across socioeconomic classes.
Furthermore, the privatization of New Orleans schools decimated unionized teaching jobs. Post-Katrina reforms saw the illegal firing of 7500 unionized, mostly Black educators. Many of these teachers were replaced by young, mostly white educators willing to work without the protections of a union. This led to a lack of representation in leadership roles within the Recovery School District, which comprises a student body that is about 95% Black. The independent boards of charter schools led to major losses for teachers, including fewer firing protections and pension benefits. These independent boards also led to a laissez-faire approach to required curriculum, which is particularly troubling in Chicago’s case considering Vallas and his supporters’ proximity to right wing groups, including anti-trans group Awake Illinois. Vallas’ so-called “experiment” in New Orleans failed at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable students and its teachers. Touting this as a success further proves Vallas’ lack of attention to the real education issue this city faces: inequity in educational quality and access.
New Orleans isn’t the only city Vallas has wrecked educational havoc in: as CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), his actions were instrumental in causing the Illinois pension crisis, which led to Illinois having the worst pension funding ratio of any state. When Daley and Vallas retook control of CPS in the 1990s, they scrapped an Illinois law that prevented CPS from using teacher pension funds for other projects, and immediately switched the pension tax levy money into the CPS operating budget. Because the economy was doing well at the time, return rates were high and no one noticed the potential liability. Then the rate of return dropped, which led to an increase in unfunded liabilities and ended up costing Chicago Teachers $2 billion in pension funds by 2006. This and the declining enrollment partly caused by Vallas’ harsh “turnaround school” policies built up debt for the district— leading to the disaster in 2013.
A city can’t solve issues of heightened crime and violence without first investing in education and community resources. Paul Vallas doesn’t know how to invest in a community— he knows only how to give public resources to less effective private profiteers.
He seems to only care about appearances and riding the wave of crime concern from the city’s most privileged, while under-resourced neighborhoods disproportionately face the brunt of the crime wave caused by decades of under investment. The next mayor’s educational policy should include additional public school funding for teachers and aides, after-school and summer programs, and enrichment opportunities rather than charter school investment.
Chicago deserves a mayor that cares about students and teachers, and will work to address the inequity that causes violence in the city.
Ella Lane is a second-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a Staff Writer for the Agora.
Image courtesy: Ken Lund