Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, a former teachers union organizer, has named chief of staff at the Chicago Teachers Union and former high school history teacher Jennifer “Jen” Johnson to be the city’s next deputy mayor of Education, Youth, and Human Services.
Johnson taught at Lincoln Park High School from 2003-2013 and left the classroom around the same time as Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who will be sworn into office Monday. The two are not related.
Both were part of a grassroots movement led by the teachers union focused on social justice, community organizing, and pushing back against top-down school reform policies, including the closure of public schools and the expansion of privately-run, often non-unionized charter schools.
“These appointments reflect our policy priorities and strategic goals as we set a bold agenda for the next four years,” Mayor-elect Johnson said in a statement. “Together we can achieve our vision for sustainable, thriving communities, responsive services for our children and most vulnerable, and a budget that illustrates our values as a city.”
Jen Johnson’s appointment is a signal Chicago Public Schools could enter a period of labor peace with the teachers union for at least the next four years. At the bargaining table, she has sat across from past deputy mayors, who have historically served as the mayor’s representative in negotiations.
On the campaign trail, Brandon Johnson faced repeated questioning about how he would handle contract talks with his former employer, to which he replied during one debate: “Who better to deliver bad news to friends than a friend?” The current CTU contract expires in 2024.
A spokesperson for the mayor-elect declined Chalkbeat’s request to interview the new deputy mayor Thursday.
As CTU chief of staff, Jen Johnson supports and represents 30,000 rank-and-file educators and union leadership. Recently, she spoke with Chalkbeat about the district’s rollout of a universal curriculum bank called Skyline. She applauded the effort, but said the union does not believe it should be mandated as that would take away teacher autonomy.
Jen Johnson has been at the bargaining table multiple times over the past several years and gave updates to the press and the public during the negotiations over virtual and in-person learning in 2020 and 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and during an 11-day strike in 2019.
Chicago remained fully remote longer than many school districts, returning in-person on a hybrid basis in the spring of 2021.
During talks in the summer of 2020, Jen Johnson said the district’s proposal for a six-hour virtual school day was not age-appropriate for the youngest students and lacked an infrastructure to serve students with disabilities and English learners.
“You have too much screen time and not enough prep time,” she said at the time. “You can’t impose in-person school on at-home learning.”
In a speech at a labor conference in 2012, Jen Johnson called herself a “born Michigander” whose dad also taught high school history for 34 years in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She said her grandfather taught high school English in Winnetka, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, and mentioned that her mother wrote a book in 1970 “about her experience being the only white student in an all-Black public high school called Marshall on the West Side of Chicago in 1966.”
“I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a history teacher and that I wanted to work in public schools,” Jen Johnson said at the time.
According to a press release from the Mayor-elect’s transition team, Jen Johnson has sat on the boards of the Illinois Federation of Teachers Executive Board, Grow Your Own Illinois, and the Illinois State Board of Education State Educator Licensure and Preparation Board.
Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at firstname.lastname@example.org.