The Chicago mayoral election is February 28. Nine candidates are running. If no candidate wins a majority, there will be a runoff on April 4. You can read about the candidates here.

One of the candidates who is faring well in the polls is Paul Vallas. He is of interest to parents and educators because most of his professional career has been spent as a leader of school districts, although he is not an educator. He introduced a bold experiment in privatization in Philadelphia, which failed. After Vallas left Philly, the district was taken over by the state. He lost his position as superintendent in Bridgeport, Connecticut, because of his lack of credentials. If Vallas should win, the charter crowd would descend on Chicago to reap their rewards.

Julie Vassilatos is the parent of two students who graduated from the Chicago Public Schools in 2017 and 2021. She was outraged that the Chicago Tribune endorsed Vallas. (The tribune is behind a paywall.) She wrote a response to the editorial. The Tribune was impressed by Vallas’ long resume, but Julie writes that he left behind chaos and budget deficits wherever he was in charge of a school district.

She writes:

It’s unclear to me exactly what motivated the members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board to endorse Paul Vallas for mayor in our upcoming election.

Vallas has run for mayor before. In 2018 I wrote about why he was not a good candidate, and these reasons all hold true today. I could simply re-run that piece today on its own and that would be nearly sufficient as a response to the Tribune’s endorsement. (Notably, they didn’t endorse him last time around.) But there are specifics in Sunday’s editorial that require a response, so I will do that here, with the former piece, from my now-disappeared blog “Chicago Public Fools,” appended below.

The Tribune editorial board gave their reasons. But they’re poor reasons at best, and at worst, wrong or disingenuous. Let’s go through their claims.

I. First, the Tribune editorial highlights Vallas’s “expertise in city financing, policing, and public education.” Expertise can mean, I suppose, “someone did a thing, maybe a lot.” But doing it well and successfully should be inherent in the word. “Expertise” in this case is absurdly unsupported by facts. Cities he’s worked in—rapidly, and left rapidly—were left with complicated budget problems, vast deficits, and controversy. He was superintendent of schools in Philadelphia for 5 years (ousted after causing ballooning budget deficits, OR he resigned in order to gallop to New Orleans, you pick), New Orleans for 4 (he left in order to run unsuccessfully for Cook County Board President), and Bridgeport, CT for 2 (ousted because he did not meet the job qualification of being an educator, OR he resigned to run unsuccessfully with IL gubernatorial candidate Pat Quinn, you pick). A quick recap of each stint:

In Philadelphia

Vallas’s record here is complicated. From The Notebook in 2007:

One thing is certain – Paul Vallas certainly shook up the Philadelphia School District.

Full of energy and confident that he could solve any problem, Vallas’s five-year tenure was a whirlwind of bold initiatives and dramatic changes in policy.

At the same time, he is leaving a district in tumult, with the same deep financial problems that he inherited – running a large deficit, and still without stable, reliable funding that meets the extraordinary needs of the city’s students.

His legacy here has much to do with the Broad Institute’s brand of “reformers.” Recapping the history of “reform” in Philadelphia, Thomas Ultican writes of Vallas in 2018’s “Philadelphia Story: Another School Choice Failure”:

He also opened the door for billionaire Eli Broad to infest Philadelphia with administrators trained at his unaccredited Broad Academy.

Broad believes that leaders of school district need financial and business management skills but require little or no experience in education. He also says that the best way to reform education is through competition and market forces.

Vallas is an example of the kind of school leader Broad sought to foster. He was someone who had little to no experience in education but understood finance.

We have some experience of the Broad Academy here in Chicago. You remember. Barbara Byrd-Bennett was a Broadie. [She was convicted of taking kickbacks and sent to prison.]

In New Orleans:

Even those who accept the rising test scores narrative know there are vast problems in New Orleans post Vallas, as recounted in a 2015 New York Times article. “The rhetoric of reform often fails to match reality.” Privatization here, as elsewhere, hurts the most disadvantaged students.

“We don’t want to replicate a lot of the things that took place to get here,” said Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city. “There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” Mr. Perry acknowledged, including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.”

Privatization, writes teacher, scholar, and author Mercedes Schneider, was not a better way to run schools. Schneider has researched and written substantially on this topic, speaking of expertise; if you have any interest in the long-term effects of school privatization, do yourself a favor and learn from her.

Has Vallas’s brand of reform been sustainable in New Orleans? In a 2008 piece in, a principal presciently considered this question:

Cheryllyn Branche, the principal of Bannecker Elementary School, wonders about sustainability. ‘I have a vested interest in this community. No matter what, it will always be home,’ she said. ‘If we don’t have people who have a commitment to this place in the long term, it won’t come back.’

‘Sometimes I want to ask him, “What happens when you are gone?”’

In Bridgeport CT:

Vallas was hired shortly after the state takeover of Bridgeport, CT public schools, subject to his fulfilling CT law that he be trained as an educator. A special condition was created just for him, non-trained-educator that he was: that he complete an educational leadership program. Instead of doing this he took a single independent study course that was later deemed not to fulfill the special condition. The whole thing ended in a tangled lawsuit, explained in this 2013 piece in the Stamford (CT) Advocate:

[I]t is a case study about the arrogance and abuse of power that have become the hallmark of the so-called reform movement.

The Vallas saga is the story of how an infamous reformer broke the law — a law written expressly for him — and how senior officials put personal and political connections above the law and welfare of Bridgeport’s children.

The court ruled against Vallas, but later reversed the decision in an appeal; Vallas had already left to join Pat Quinn’s IL campaign for governor. His short tenure in Bridgeport was largely colored by this controversy.

It’s clear that the expertise the Tribune touts, based largely on his school district leadership, is fraught with complications and possibly wildly overrated. The parts that worry me in this history include the rapid fire breaking and destruction coupled with simultaneous rapid spending and rapid budget slashing. The failure to listen to constituents. The repeated disadvantaging of already-disadvantaged children.

I know reformers like Vallas do not see that the upshot of their work turns out to be racist. But oddly, districts subjected to the Vallas type of reform somehow get a whole lot whiter—from administrators, through teachers, and on down to students. Saying “choice is the civil rights issue of our time” over and over like a magic spell does not make it true. School choice has never, and will never, increase equity in a school district. School choice originates in the racist response to Brown v. Board of Education and the creation of schools not subject to federal oversight. Today choice is instrumental in breaking down democracy in our communities. [These claims were the subject of my blog that ran for 7 years; though I want to go on and on about this, we’ve got to keep moving or I’ll never get through this post!]

Just on a practical level, Vallas’s plans for keeping schools open on nights and weekends baffle me. How does he propose to pay for all that staffing? Our schools don’t even have libraries. They have hardly any extracurriculars. Some of them are lacking in utter basics. What is he talking about? I can’t even imagine the epic Godzilla versus Mothra battles that would ensue between him and the CTU over this.

No, Chicago Tribune. No. No to someone who is a serial privatizer. No to someone who set corporate ed reform in motion in Chicago decades ago. No to someone who blows things up and leaves. No to someone who’s left increased racial inequity in his wake. We don’t need a mayor who has this kind of proven track record on education.

II. Next, the Tribune loves that Vallas “has the ear of rank and file police officers on the street.”What they mean by this is that he is very cozy—one could say uncomfortably cozy—with FOP president and disgraced cop John Catanzara. Last month the FOP endorsed Vallas; this week Vallas spoke at an FOP event for retired police officers alongside Catanzara; and he recently accepted a $5K donation from a retired policeman involved in the Laquan McDonald murder. When WBEZ reported on that connection, his campaign acknowledged that, and rather than returning the money, they gave $10K to Parents for Peace and Justice.

His public safety plan is full of dog whistles, like so: “Our city has been surrendered to a rogue element who act with seeming impunity in treating unsuspecting, innocent people as prey.” Kicking CPD Superintendent David Brown to the curb is Job One. Bypassing Kim Foxx when necessary is key. And adding thousands of police officers is a priority, so that CPD is staffed “like it was under Rahm Emanuel.” Said new cops would be recruited from military bases (?!), the fire department, retirees, and private security forces; residency requirements would be waived (but wait, didn’t he say having cops from the local community was best?). Every CTA station would be staffed with cops. In a just and good world, these are not inherently problematic proposals. In the world we live in, with out of control, hostile, already overly militarized cops, these ideas would implement a semi-privatized dystopian police state with watchful cops on every corner trying to snatch the city back from the rogue element. Of course rank and file cops like these ideas.

The Tribune is hopeful that Vallas would use the trust of the police “to improve police conduct.” Again with the saying it/wishing it connection. I think the next mayor needs more concrete proposals about improving police conduct than we see in Vallas’s plan.

III. In discussing some of Vallas’s challengers, the Tribune is “troubled by [their] associations”
(in this case, Chuy Garcia’s connection to Madigan). But how can the editorial board overlook Vallas’s own troubling associations? Let me detail a few.

He spoke at an Awake IL event this past summer. Days later, after he was roundly criticized for joining forces with the group, he walked back his connection with them, assuring folks that he, himself, is not in any way homophobic or racist. It would have taken a 5 second internet search to see that Awake IL has a history of being unhinged about covid restrictions, threatens trans people regularly, refers to the governor as a “groomer,” was instrumental in the vandalism of UpRising Bakery, and is connected to the Proud Boys. But Vallas didn’t make a 5 second internet search when he was invited to serve on a panel that Awake IL leader Shannon Adcock called “the Continental Congress of school choice.”

He received a $7.5K donation from disgraced former CPS Board of Ed member Deborah Quazzo, whose notoriety derives chiefly but not solely from the large profits she secured as a result of contracts obtained while serving on the Board of Ed. Her husband threw in another $10K for good measure. Interestingly, in his last at-bat for mayor, Vallas received a much smaller donation from Quazzo, then returned it after he was asked about it by WBEZ. Time heals all wounds, apparently. Vallas now says, 4 years ago there were allegations being made about her that didn’t seem great, and his campaign was wary. Now he thinks “nothing came of those investigations” into what Quazzo did on the Board, and besides, “She has a reputation for being very active in school reform.” (Again, a 5 second internet search would yield the CPS Inspector General’s report on all matters Quazzo. Allegations sustained.)

I’ve already mentioned the deeply problematic John Catenzara. At least the $5K donation of the Laquan McDonald-involved cop, Richard Hagen, did cause a twinge of conscience.

Disgraced Barbara Byrd-Bennett partner in crime Gary Solomon was also an associate of Vallas’s—for years. Solomon went with Vallas to Philadelphia, then New Orleans. “In a series of letters to Louisiana officials who oversaw the New Orleans district, Vallas vouched for Synesi Associates,” Gary Solomon’s education consulting firm. “Synesi landed two no-bid contracts worth nearly $893,000 in New Orleans during Vallas’ time running the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.” Solomon’s prison term for his involvement in the Barbara Byrd-Bennett kickback scandal ended early because of covid. He’ll be released from home confinement in October.

Vallas owes one of his jobs to yet another shady connection, former governor Bruce Rauner, who set him up as Chief Administrative Officer of Chicago State University, in hopes of turning it around. This scenario didn’t end well—CSU cut ties with Vallas when he announced his run for mayor in the middle of his tenure. “I find it unfortunate that he would attempt to use Chicago State University as a platform to run for the mayor of the city of Chicago,” [Board Vice President Nicholas] Gowen said. “It is not the role of Mr. Vallas to try to use Chicago State University to try to bolster his bona fides to the black community.”

IV. The Tribune touts the need for “turnaround specialists” like Vallas and hopes others join him. But what is this? Do we want this? What does a turnaround actually do beyond slash-and-burn destruction of communities and gentrification outcomes that turn out looking quite racist? Educator and author Larry Cuban asks if turnaround “experts” are what struggling school districts (and presumably by extension, cities) really require.

Vallas is (or was) the premier “turnaround specialist.” Whether, indeed, Vallas turned around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans is contested. Supporters point to more charter schools, fresh faces in the classroom, new buildings, and slowly rising test scores; critics point to abysmal graduation rates for black and Latino students, enormous budget deficits, and implementation failures.

“Turnarounds” as a school strategy have been notorious, and notoriously ineffective. On the school level, a turnaround means every staff member of a school is fired, down to the last lunch lady, and replaced with new staff members. These supposedly higher quality (and perplexingly, usually way whiter) staff members are supposed to fix everything. Break it all fast. Rebuild it fast. Voila! It is fixed. On the district level, it means replacing traditional public schools with charters, lots of firing, much slashing of budgets. Poof! District is fixed, and it is a miracle! Until said turnaround experts leave town with the district and city holding the bag—and the bag is usually empty.

What in the world does a “turnaround expert” do in charge of a whole city? What parts are going to be dismantled? What parts remade? What parts gentrified? What budgets slashed and burned?

I can’t picture it. More significantly, Vallas hasn’t really articulated it.

The Tribune lauds Vallas for his expertise in education—which is questionable—and his rapport with CPD—which is dubious. It overlooks some super sketchy connections and wants to bring down the cursed turnaround upon Chicago. You know, and I know, that Paul Vallas is not the mayor we Chicagoans need—not in 2019 and not now.

If you want to read the author’s appraisal of Vallas in 2018, when he captured a little more than 5% of the vote, open the link. It follows this post.