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Paul Vallas is reaching back to his tenure as Chicago Public Schools CEO in his bid to become Chicago’s next mayor.
The former district leader put out an education platform Thursday that promises to keep school buildings open on nights and weekends, put alternative high schools into empty or underenrolled buildings, and create more charter and magnet schools. He also said he would work to elect school board members in line with his agenda.
Until now, Vallas has largely focused on crime and safety on the campaign trail, not education. Even as he unveiled his plan for the city’s schools, he began by talking about homicide rates.
“Our schools can become sanctuaries for our kids – a place for them to go where they can be safe and secure and where they and their families can access the additional resources they need,” Vallas said, noting that outside community groups and the park district could run programs during non-school hours.
If elected, Vallas would be the last mayor with control of the city’s public school system — bookending an era he ushered in as the first CPS CEO, a role he held from 1995 to 2001.
Chicago begins its transition to an elected school board next year, with 10 elected in fall 2024 and 11 appointed by the mayor. By 2027, the mayor will no longer appoint any of the 21 school board members. 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.
That agenda harkens back to policies Vallas implemented in the past that have fallen out of favor in recent years — like expanding charter schools, funding schools based on enrollment, and holding students back if they don’t meet academic standards.
As schools chief, Vallas implemented an accountability system that placed schools with low test scores on probation — a label that in some cases eventually led to the schools’ closure or the entire staff being fired. He also ended the practice of “social promotion,” which allows kids of a certain age to move to the next grade regardless of whether they passed their classes or met standards.
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“Promoting kids (to) high school, when they’re reading at the seventh or eighth grade reading level is just catastrophic, and it’s going to have catastrophic consequences,” Vallas said.
Last month, the Chicago Board of Education overhauled the district’s longstanding promotion policy, eliminating the use of test scores as a factor in holding students back and once again, allowing students to move to the next grade even if they fall short of meeting academic requirements.
Other candidates have criticized Vallas for helping create financial problems for the school district.
It was during Vallas’ tenure that Chicago Public Schools stopped making regular payments into the teachers’ pension fund. According to Politifact, the same state law that gave Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the schools also changed the tax levy that directly funded the pension system, allowing Daley and Vallas to use money once earmarked for pensions to help cover operating costs.
All of the pension funds for government workers in Chicago — teachers, policemen, and firefighters — are underfunded and require hundreds of millions of dollars in payments annually in order to meet their obligations to retirees.
When Vallas was CEO, Chicago Public Schools also enrolled over 430,000 students. That’s at least 100,000 more than it does now. The city’s school-age population has dropped at roughly the same rate. Declining enrollment is felt most acutely at some of the city’s shrinking neighborhood high schools, many of which get additional funding so they can offer a full course load.
The school board is not allowed to close schools until 2025 and most candidates have said they won’t close schools or would only do so as a last resort.
Vallas said he wants to expand work study programs for high schoolers and open “Adult High Schools” inside underenrolled or empty schools to serve people over 18 without a high school diploma. During his time as CEO, Vallas expanded alternative schools through the Youth Connection Charter School network.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission hired him in Philadelphia after the state took over the public school system. He made dramatic changes, but left the system with a deficit.
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In New Orleans, Vallas closed neighborhood schools while charter schools reopened in their place. He faced criticism over “lack of transparency, inattention to the most disadvantaged students,” according to the Times-Picayune. But former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other experts lauded his efforts as a model for school reform. Under Vallas, student test scores improved at schools converted into charter schools, but at district-run schools, progress was uneven, according to New Orleans magazine.
In Bridgeport, he was “both hailed as savior and demonized as an arrogant, inflexible dictator,” according to the Connecticut Post. Vallas left that position to run for Lt. Governor in Illinois and amid a controversy over whether he had the credentials required to run a school system in that state.
Vallas also built a career as an education consultant — moving between the public and private sectors. While still superintendent in New Orleans, his consulting group worked on contract in hurricane-ravaged Haiti and turned around schools in Chile after a 2010 earthquake.
The Vallas Group got a $1 million contract in 2012 from the Illinois State Board of Education to help with school turnaround efforts in the suburb of North Chicago and East St. Louis.
Mayoral candidate and state Rep. Kam Buckner called Vallas an “opportunist collecting titles.” Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson, who is also running for mayor, criticized Vallas for “firing hundreds of Black teachers and school staff.”
“As mayor, Vallas would be laughable at best, and unmitigated disaster at worst – especially for Black and Brown educators and families,” Johnson said in a statement.
In a statement, mayoral candidate and U.S. Congressman Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia blasted Vallas’ record on education.
“His entire career he has gone from city to city ruining the school systems that children and families depend on, while he made hundreds of thousands of dollars and gave questionable contracts to politically connected firms,” Garcia said.
Vallas defended his record saying it “speaks for itself” and called criticism from other candidates “a sign of desperation.”
This story has been updated to clarify why Vallas left his position as Superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools.
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Mauricio Peña contributed reporting.
Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at email@example.com.