Chicago’s Mayoral Election Should Be a Warning to Democrats Who Have Abandoned Public Education

Progressive Policy Institute
4 min readMay 17, 2023

By Tressa Pankovits

Earlier this week, former Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) negotiator Brandon Johnson became Chicago’s 48th mayor. “Progressives” are celebrating, but when it comes to prioritizing high quality public schools, the new mayor couldn’t be more regressive.

This should be a national wakeup call for moderates. During the pandemic, many Democrats ignored parents’ demands. That abetted the party’s surrender of the historic trust we long enjoyed on education policy. Now, the elevation of a CTU leader to the most important office in the biggest city in the Midwest — where the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will hold its convention next summer — makes reclaiming our mantle as the “education party” harder.

The media frequently calls Johnson a “former teacher.” That sounds non-threatening. Johnson grabs every opportunity to continue the charade.

In reality, after briefly teaching, Johnson became CTU’s Deputy Political Director. In a documentary produced by the nonpartisan Illinois Policy Institute, Johnson is seen standing immediately next to three successive CTU presidents. The mayor-elect was at the center of CTU’s political crusades, including shuttering the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) during the pandemic for far longer than almost anywhere. To understand the threat education stakeholders now face with a CTU-surrogate as mayor, recent history is informative.

In 2004, CPS closed dozens of underperforming schools and replaced them with publicly-funded nonprofit charter or contract schools. Then-CEO of CPS Arne Duncan hoped to replicate the accomplishments of those types of schools already operating in the district. Their success stemmed from contracts requiring them to improve student outcomes. If they didn’t properly educate kids, their contracts were terminated.

Initially, none of those charter school teachers were dues-paying members of the CTU. That’s why teachers unions nationwide spend big to vilify and block charters, even though 70% of Democratic voters would like to have more of them.

CPS’ plan to create more non-unionized schools sparked union fury. According to one local reformer, “It woke up a radical element in the CTU, outraged by the direct affront to their power.” In 2010, that radical element, with which Johnson is closely aligned, took control of the CTU.

CTU’s new leadership didn’t hide its extremist agenda. The architect of CTU’s takeover, Jackson Potter, declared, “It’s about power, plain and simple.”

Vice president Kenzo Shabata said another “quiet part” out loud. “A lot of us are communists and socialists,” he claimed. “Militancy is crucial — the more militant we got, the more power we got toward our ideological goals.”

In its quest for power, CTU in 2012 abandoned students to the picket line for nine days. They did it again in 2016, 2019, and 2022.

Not surprisingly, CTU’s extremism hasn’t enhanced educational outcomes for CPS’ students. Seventy-two percent live in poverty; 36% are Black and 47% are Hispanic. From CTU’s radicalization in 2010 until 2014, students’ reading proficiency fell 29%, while math proficiency fell 30%. When Illinois adopted in new tests in 2015, reading proficiency dropped another 30% and math fell 23%.

In 2022, CPS announced an historic 84% graduation rate. But just 23% of those graduates could read at grade level. In spite of this, CPS’ budget increased 55% since 2010, to $30,000 annually per student.

CTU faces zero consequences for dismal student outcomes. Its bargaining agreement contains no accountability measures or performance metrics. Teachers keep their jobs and receive automatic raises whether or not students learn.

Maybe the new mayor will simply cover up those statistics. Johnson bragged that, during his brief teaching career, he pushed to eliminate standards and stopped giving homework “as a way of rebelling against the structure.”

With one of its own in power, CTU will likely get what it wants. Johnson already appointed CTU’s chief of staff to be his Deputy Mayor for Education. His administration will prioritize “social justice” over academic competency. That almost guarantees that kids who need good schools and teachers will be sacrificed on the altar of far-left priorities that have little to do with preparing children for adulthood

Voters — including the majority of Chicagoans who didn’t vote — should’ve paid more attention. CTU almost entirely funded and manned Johnson’s campaign. It owns him. It also owns Chicago’s city council. Thirty-two of Chicago’s 50 councilmembers depend on CTU for campaign contributions. Checks and balances are gone.

Power is also out of balance in red states and cities. There, Republicans are exploiting Democrat’s weakness on education in furtherance of their culture wars: banning books, turning American history into fan-fiction, persecuting LBGTQ students, and so on. There’s equally zero educational value in any of those endeavors.

Moderate Democrats simply must take a more active role in education politics. Elections like Johnson’s build momentum. They distort perception, especially amongst voters who pull a lever based on platitudes and misleading claims.

Bryan Striker, whose firm ALG Research polled for President Biden’s 2020 campaign, noted that union strikes and prolonged COVID shutdowns hurt Democrats across the country. “Anyone who thinks this is a political problem that stops at the Chicago city line is kidding themselves,” he said in 2022. “This is going to resonate across the country.”

The DNC in particular should pay attention. Republicans have evidence that education is a winning issue in 2024. Throwing its nominating convention in a city that just elected a union negotiator as mayor who, as one of his first acts, appointed the CTU’s chief of staff as Deputy Mayor for Education, is a gift to Republicans. At best, it will shine an awkward spotlight on Democrat’s education policy woes if moderate Democrats don’t quickly and vigorously reengage. It’s time for pragmatic education policies, including charter schools that put children — not union powerbrokers — first.

Tressa Pankovits is Co-Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.



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