Chicago Teachers Union slams Vallas’s ‘path of destruction’
Mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas spar at the CBS/WVON forum in the Loop on March 28, 2023, a week before Runoff Election Day. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO—All through the heated and confrontational Chicago mayoral race, crime seems to have been the top topic in the Windy City, especially for one of the two finalists.

The Chicago Teachers Union wants to remind everyone there’s another big-ticket issue up for grabs in the April 4 general election: The city’s schools.

The election is a virtually tied contest between former teacher and CTU member Brandon Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner, and Paul Vallas, the former Chief Executive Officer/Chancellor of the city’s schools, and a favorite of the right-wing Federation of Police.

The future of the city’s schools is at stake—who will run them and whether they’ll serve all Chicago kids of all races, or if public schools will drown in an onslaught of charter schools that will draw dollars and pupils away in what CTU calls Paul Vallas’s “path of destruction.”

That drawdown would leave the public schools poorer, as the same amount of school dollars get distributed among more schools and especially more charters. But public-school teachers would still be responsible for educating the heavy majority of Chicago students, most of them students of color.

Johnson is trying to construct a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition of white progressives, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans built around a vision of a more equal city. Vallas appeals to white more conservative voters on the Northwest and Southwest Sides, plus some Latinos and to people who view the entire city through the lens—or the dog whistle—of crime.

There’s no question where Johnson and Vallas stand on the public schools-vs-charter schools issue. Johnson would keep the present moratorium on new charters; Vallas would end it. But he wouldn’t necessarily welcome students of color in—or so say veteran educators who toiled under Vallas’s tenure in two other urban school systems, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The two, Viola Curry, a staff representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1776, and Dr. Ashonta Wyatt, a former elementary school principal in New Orleans and a member of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), were interviewed on a CTU YouTube video by top Chicago Teachers Union official Dr. Monique Smith.

It’s one of a series of YouTube videos on the mayoral race. CTU endorsed and enthusiastically backs Johnson and posted them. The video, Paul Vallas’ path of destruction: Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia is at

CTU has also marshaled thousands of foot soldiers for Johnson and against Vallas, and their efforts, along with those of Service Employees Local 73, were credited with putting Johnson in the election.

Ironically, there’s another video on YouTube on the mayor’s race—provenance unknown—featuring a young white man demanding Johnson declare where he and CTU differ. There was no similar query for Vallas, who is white. Johnson is Black. If elected he’d be Chicago’s second consecutive Black mayor.

Suffice it to say, Smith, Curry, and Wyatt, all African-American professionals, had nothing good to say about Vallas. Especially Wyatt.

Jen Conant, head of CTU’s Public Charter Schools division, joined them midway through the 37-minute video. She’s no Vallas fan either.

“There’s this perception that Paul Vallas is pro-charter,” she says. “What we’re seeing in the charter division” where CTU has had some organizing successes “is that he’s pro-charter operator.

“He’s not pro-charter education, he’s not pro-charter student, he’s not pro-charter family. And he really stands opposed to everything we’re fighting for to improve our schools” both charter and public. “Just because someone wants to privatize schools or open more charters doesn’t mean they have the best interests of students at heart.”

CTU has had running battles for more than a decade with city Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, who finished third in the Feb. 28 multi-candidate primary behind Vallas and Johnson. The latest opinion polls show the two are tied or give Vallas a slight lead within the margin of error.

Though Vallas is a registered Democrat, as is Johnson, there are questions about his real politics.

Establishment Democrats, such as U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, back Vallas. But besides the right-wing Federation of Police, Vallas just picked up the endorsement of a notorious teacher, union, and public-school hater, Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a Republican big giver.

The national American Federation of Teachers (AFT), CTU’s parent union, reported DeVos founded a SuperPAC, the Illinois Federation for Children. It pumped tens of thousands of dollars into Vallas’s campaign. DeVos donated to the Vallas, AFT said. So did another top Republican union hater, former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“Paul Vallas’s goal of defunding public schools and dividing parents against teachers makes him precisely the kind of candidate who would appeal to a fellow wrecker like Betsy DeVos, who’s devoted her life to ending public education as we know it,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said on March 30.

Vallas, she added, is waging “a craven campaign to voucherize and pauperize” public schools, “just like DeVos tried—and failed—to do when she served as Trump’s Education Secretary. There’s a reason Vallas’s talking points about public safety, schools, election integrity, and unions sound like national Republicans’: He’s being funded by them.”

CTU’s Smith remembered that when Emanuel closed 56 schools, virtually all in communities of color, “folks were crying, begging, pleading not to close their schools.” By the time of that closure, though, Vallas had left town. He was schools’ CEO under Mayor Richard M. Daley from 1995-2001.

Wyatt explained Vallas arrived six years later in New Orleans with a mission from the Republican George W. Bush administration, though she didn’t say so: Destroy the city’s public school system and completely replace it with charters and/or private schools. New Orleans is now 100% charters.

That had a great impact on New Orleans and it was not positive. The United Teachers of New Orleans/AFT and the Amalgamated Transit Union local for the Crescent City’s bus drivers were the backbones of New Orleans’s Black middle class until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Both unions were wrecked as part of the Bush government’s plan to make Louisiana’s largest and most famous city a laboratory for its “free market” social experiments, with the city’s residents of color as the unwilling guinea pigs. Tens of thousands of them fled, for good. New Orleans shrank from 483,663 people in 2000 to 343,829 in 2010. It’s added only 33,000 people since. It’s still majority Black.

And Vallas, who arrived in New Orleans in 2007, intentionally decimated UTNO, Wyatt said. Louisiana is a right-to-work state where anyone—like Wyatt—who speaks up for the students can be fired, or for no reason at all, she said. The local has never recovered. People are afraid to stand up, she admitted. UTNO reps can’t even get into the school buildings.

“Vallas had complete autonomy. His first act was to fire 7,500 veteran educators. He did this so he could bring in Teach For America” graduates. Teach For America is a rightist-sponsored, corporate-funded trainer of teachers, supplanting university education schools’ grads.

It’s also anti-union. Its most infamous alumna, Michelle Rhee, tried to decimate the Washington, D.C., Teachers Union by pitting teacher versus teacher through merit pay and arbitrary firings. Chancellor Rhee lost her job, when her mentor, Mayor Adrian Fenty, a corporate Democrat, was voted out of office after one 4-year term, due to an anti-Rhee backlash which crossed racial lines.

“What you had was an imbalance of professionals” in the 71 remaining New Orleans schools, said Wyatt. “The schools that were predominately Black were Teach for America.” When Vallas did rehire a few of the city’s veteran teachers, he sent them to predominantly white schools.

“So what he did was to destabilize education in New Orleans. What he did was destabilize our middle class in New Orleans. What he did was to privatize the public good that was education.

“Nothing he did is working. 72% of our students are not reading at grade level. They go to college with a 6th-grade reading level, so most drop out” and can’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application. That educational damage also led to a spike in juvenile crime, she said.

“That’s all due to the leadership or non-leadership of Paul Vallas. He knew what he was doing. That’s why he left Philadelphia because he knew what was going to hit the fan, and came to New Orleans.”

Vallas was not a success in Philadelphia, either, said Curry. A board of overseers backed him. It replaced the school board, with three Republicans named by the GOP governor and two Democrats appointed by the city’s Democratic mayor. The overseers still run the city schools, which, like New Orleans and Chicago, serve mostly students of color.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was bigger and stronger than UTNO and Pennsylvania is not a right-to-work state. PFT was able to stave off some of Vallas’ depredations, Curry said. But he closed enough schools and fired enough workers, especially support staffers, so membership declined from 18,000 to 12,000 during his tenure. Vallas also took the school system headquarters out of its historic building into another one that cost an extra $30 million. “Money was a major, major problem,” under Vallas, Curry said.

“He was a fixer,” Curry adds. “He spent and spent and spent” and ran the system’s deficit up to $73 million. “He got a $5 million grant from the Department of Education for ‘pay for performance.’ Of course, that didn’t go through with us. So he gave it to charter schools, and left us in a real bind and a real fix, that years later was a major problem in trying to staff schools. We lost teachers, we lost support staff, we lost resources.”

New Orleans’s Wyatt ended with an impassioned plea to video viewers and voters to reject Vallas.

“This is his track record. Everything is a failure. Everything he touches he decimates. So Chicago ought not to want him back in their city. He’s no good for Chicago, he’s no good for Black children.”

Added CTU interviewer Smith: “The world is watching you. They are watching to see how you respond. This is more than a Chicago fight.”

We hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, please support great working-class and pro-people journalism by donating to People’s World.

We are not neutral. Our mission is to be a voice for truth, democracy, the environment, and socialism. We believe in people before profits. So, we take sides. Yours!

We are part of the pro-democracy media contesting the vast right-wing media propaganda ecosystem brainwashing tens of millions and putting democracy at risk.

Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader supported. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all.

But we need your help. It takes money—a lot of it—to produce and cover unique stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.