Dollars vs. decentralization: Johnson’s and Vallas’ vastly different fixes for CPS

Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson have strong ties to public education — and very different plans for Chicago Public Schools.

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Chicago mayoral candidate Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (left) and Chicago mayoral candidate former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (right) listen to moderators during a Mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios at 2501 West Bradley Pl. on the Northside, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. I Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson (left) and Paul Vallas offer very different plans for Chicago Public Schools.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

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Chicago Public Schools’ next chapter hangs on the result of the April 4 mayoral runoff election between two candidates boasting unusually strong ties to public education — and diametrically opposed ideas for schools.

Paul Vallas plans drastic changes to CPS structure, bolstering principals and local leaders’ power over spending and programming — and even the ability to let a charter school take over their campus. He would prioritize standardized testing and make it easier to hold students back a grade so they don’t graduate without necessary reading and math skills.

“We should be running districts of schools, not school districts,” Vallas said. “I really believe in radical decentralization.”

Brandon Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school — such as art teachers, social workers and librarians. This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.

“We need to overhaul the CPS funding formula so that we’re fully funding every single public school,” Johnson said. “That’s the norm, that’s the baseline. Our people deserve that.”

Public education advocates worry Vallas’ plans would create a stratified school system of winners and losers. Budget watchdogs wonder where Johnson will find money to fund his plan.

The next mayor will have to grapple with an expected $600 million deficit, as well as the end of a moratorium on school closings and a new teachers contract. The first school board elections are soon after.

Spending

Vallas, 69, says his plans are predicated on changing how CPS spends the money it has rather than securing more.

The CPS CEO from 1995 to 2001, Vallas says “money should follow the students” as part of a market-driven approach to education in which funding is allocated per student and schools compete for kids. He argues this arrangement ensures quality in every school.

It’s a model that has promoted charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, and selective-enrollment and magnet programs in traditional public schools. CPS has moved away from that funding approach — called student-based budgeting — in recent years because disparities grew over time. As students flocked to one specialty school or another — and as population declined in some areas — neighborhood schools entered a cycle in which they lost enrollment and subsequently lost funding. That meant many buildings across the city could no longer afford basics like art classes, a nurse, a social worker or a librarian.

Vallas also wants to create a city school voucher program, mandating CPS spend millions in public dollars to send students to private schools. A state tax credit scholarship program already exists to help kids from low-income families attend private schools that Vallas supports.

A key tenet of Vallas’ education platform is pushing decisions down to principals and elected local school councils.

LSC election turnout has been low over the years, and CPS has at times struggled to even recruit candidates to run. Many LSCs don’t have enough members to function.

Daniel Anello, executive director of Kids First Chicago, a business-supported nonprofit organization, said local decision-making would be a welcome change to the parents he supports and would prove most effective for serving families. But that switch can’t be flipped overnight — it would take money and time to equip LSCs with expertise.

Johnson, 47, says he would take an approach more in line with recent changes by CPS officials.

He would focus on beefing up traditional neighborhood schools in an effort to end the “Hunger Games scenario” where kids “apply to access a quality school.” That includes fully staffed special education departments, librarians, art and music teachers and nurses and social workers, he said.

Some have wondered whether Johnson would do away with selective-enrollment and magnet schools altogether — a move that would likely anger many middle-class families who the city has tried to prevent from moving to the suburbs. Johnson has denied that’s the case.

Under the current CPS budgeting system, schools often have to choose between which positions they can afford. But given CPS’ impending budget predicament, Johnson would have trouble funding current staffing levels, let alone increasing positions.

Test scores

CPS has gone through a long journey over the last two decades on school ratings and reform, ditching punitive systems that advocates, including Johnson, have criticized.

Rating systems have taken into account test scores, academic growth, attendance and graduation rates, but not students’ external stressors, like poverty. Poor ratings have then amounted to a scarlet letter used to criticize — and sometimes close — schools which were often under-resourced.

Johnson says qualitative measurements like in-class observation, game-based assessments and online programs that track math and language assignments over time say more about a student than standardized test responses.

The Board of Education is set to vote on a new accountability system in April that adds social emotional learning to the considerations and “takes a more holistic approach to what education is and can be,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Around 20,000 students, parents, teachers, principals and advocates weighed in throughout the development of the system.

“[We’re] really turning the page,” Todd-Breland said, “to a new framework and approach to thinking about what continuous improvement looks like for the district.”

Vallas has a radically different view on accountability and says he would once again make test scores the barometer for how schools and students are judged. He points to low scores among Black and Latino students as reasons for reform, calling them “system failure.”

“Whether it’s probation or whatever. … Should we not identify and do something about those schools?” Vallas asked. “Whether probation was a cruder term 25, 30 years ago, maybe there’s a gentler term. But should those schools not be identified and flagged for special intervention?

“I think parents want high standards. I think parents want accountability,” said Vallas.

Anello said he thinks measurement is “incredibly important” to understanding where educational gaps exist, and he doesn’t want to see a candidate remove metrics altogether — but “holding the district accountable for providing the resources” is just as vital.

“You can’t measure something and then punish someone for not getting to where you want them to be without providing the resources to then help them get there,” Anello said. “And I think, historically, accountability has been designed in a way that hasn’t really taken into account or helped schools that are struggling.”

Vallas has also decried so-called “social promotion,” which sends kids to the next grade whether or not they’ve learned the necessary material so they can stay with kids their age.

“Social promotion has been a cancer that has undermined the quality of public education,” Vallas said.

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research has found retaining kids because of poor test scores is more harmful than helpful to Black and Latino students. Studies have also shown retention could increase the chances a student drops out.

Funding

In the background of these plans is the fact that CPS only has 75% of the state and local funding it needs to adequately serve its students, according to state officials, leaving CPS about $1.4 billion short. That calculation takes into account poverty rates and other factors affecting kids’ educational experiences.

Add to that the pending loss of CPS’ federal pandemic relief funding in 2025, and it leaves a projected deficit of more than $600 million in 2025, officials said. Leaders at CPS, the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union, along with fiscal experts, all say any plan to address the district’s problems must start with more funding.

“A lot of the really difficult decisions ahead around capacity and enrollment and accountability … all of those things require resources. And when you’re operating on 75 cents on the dollar in terms of funding, and you’re asking people to do 100% of the work, it’s really, really a hard ask,” Anello said.

The Civic Federation, which analyzes the CPS budget, has been critical that CPS has boosted staff while the number of students has decreased.

“It’s really important that CPS and all of its stakeholders work together to come up with some kind of a plan in order to close that gap well ahead of time before it turns into a crisis,” said Sarah Wetmore, acting president of the federation. She said a plan should include cuts to show taxpayers the district is trying to “live within its means.”

Vallas said the district’s central office is bloated. He maintains CPS has enough money to serve its students, claiming the school system is spending $30,000 per student.

That’s only partially true. The CPS budget this year is $9.4 billion — and it’s true only 69% of that money ($6.5 billion) is directly funding schools. But of the remainder: $1 billion is funding pensions; $762 million is paying off debt; and $645 million is funding building and renovation costs — all expenses that don’t burden other Illinois districts because the state helps cover them. A total of $400 million funds the central and regional offices — 4% of the overall budget.

Johnson has talked about looking for efficiencies, but he insists the state must step up to provide more money. For decades, every school leader has pledged to boost state spending for CPS, usually unsuccessfully. Johnson says strong Democratic majorities in the Illinois General Assembly, as well as a surplus in state tax revenues, could make it easier this time.

Wetmore said the school district needs to have a plan B if the state doesn’t come through.

Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Lauren FitzPatrick contributed to this story.

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