Mayoral hopeful Brandon Johnson promises students free transit, more staff

A stands at a lectern in front of a ballroom while a crowd of supporters watch from dining room tables.
Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson unveiled his education platform Wednesday afternoon during a speech at City Club Chicago. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Chicago Teachers Union organizer and former teacher Brandon Johnson released his formal education platform today — one of a few candidates for Chicago mayor to do so with only a few weeks left before the municipal election. 

Johnson, a current Cook County commissioner, unveiled his vision for Chicago Public Schools Wednesday afternoon at a City Club of Chicago luncheon. His plan includes free bus and train rides for students on the Chicago Transit Authority, expanding opportunities for students through partnerships with City Colleges and trade schools, and having under-enrolled schools share space with child care and health clinics.

Johnson’s vision draws on the union’s decade-long push to tackle broader issues such as affordable housing and gun violence.

“Educating the whole child means dealing with the root causes,” Johnson said. “And all of the root causes are directly tied to the failures of political insiders and politicians who refuse to actually see people and recognize that poverty is one of the most isolating, awful, excruciating experiences that one could ever live through.” 

His platform also calls for the overhaul of the district’s funding model, investments in bilingual educators and clinicians to better serve migrant and vulnerable students, and making school buildings greener and ADA accessible. 

Mayoral opponent Kam Buckner, whose platform was released last fall, also called for an overhaul of the district’s funding model. He emphasized the need to fund schools based on need, not enrollment. Former district CEO Paul Vallas released his mayoral education vision last week. Vallas’ plan calls for school buildings to stay open on nights and weekends. He is also pushing for more school choice and wants to add more high school work study programs. Chicago Public Schools currently offers work study programs known as cooperative education

In an email statement, Buckner said it was “good to see the field of candidates finally” presenting education plans in the last three weeks of the race.

“Chicago needs a new vision, which is why I’ve been having these serious conversations across the city for months,” Buckner said.

Johnson’s platform calls for many of the same things outlined in the union’s latest policy paper released last fall. That document was the third version of a document titled “The Schools Chicago Students Deserve” released by the union in 2012.

Johnson got into the race in late October with CTU’s backing. The union’s governing body voted a month prior to endorse him, even though he hadn’t made an announcement. The Chicago Teachers Union has donated over $764,000 to his campaign, according to Illinois’ Sunshine database. 

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Johnson took a moment during his speech to honor former CTU president Karen Lewis, who died three years ago yesterday after a years-long struggle with brain cancer. Lewis’s late 2014 diagnosis came as she was mulling a run for mayor against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Sidelined by her illness, Lewis convinced Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia, then a Cook County Commissioner, to challenge Emanuel instead. Garcia took Emanuel into a runoff, but lost with 44% of the vote. 

Garcia, now a congressman, is also running for mayor this year. A recent WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times poll puts Garcia in a dead heat with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas. Johnson trails in fifth place. 

Lightfoot has not released a specific education plan, but much of her first term has been characterized by conflict with the CTU. Shortly after taking office in 2019, teachers went on an 11-day strike that garnered national attention.

Then the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic disrupted schools, and concerns over in-school safety mitigation led to  persistent clashes between Lightfoot and the union. Like Lightfoot, Johnson held elected office for a short time. He became a Cook County commissioner serving the city’s West Side in 2018. He has been an organizer for the CTU since 2011 and helped organize the 2012 strike, according to his campaign website.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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