On February 28, Paul Vallas kicked off the runoff for Chicago’s mayor by asserting his lifelong alignment with the Democratic Party. His outspoken support for police and his endorsement by Chicago’s far-right Fraternal Order of Police threatened to undermine his claim to mainstream electability, especially combined with the support Vallas’s Twitter account gave to a slew of white nationalist tweets, purportedly to Vallas’s own’s shock and dismay.
However, as an architect of education policies that have wrecked havoc on public schools nationwide, Vallas has indeed provided his party with faux-progressive agenda-points embraced by Democratic politicians from the municipal to the national level—until their thoroughly documented failure could no longer be ignored because it ignited fierce and unifying labor and antiracist struggles.
There is no paradox. A review of his career amply demonstrates that Vallas is both a died-in-the-wool Democrat and reactionary, pushing policies that threaten to deepen and intensify the racist inequality that defines Chicago. This article originally appeared at Medium, and Rampant is grateful to be able to republish it, lightly revised for timeliness.
In an unsurprising, but nonetheless disgraceful move, the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, which is separate from its newsroom, endorsed Paul Vallas for mayor of Chicago.
After claiming that America’s third-largest city is in need of a “turnaround,” the Tribune calls Vallas, “a smart, passionate and experienced candidate for mayor.”
The Tribune endorsement is notable because it serves as a signifier for who the consensus “business candidate” is.
It is clear that Chicago’s wealthy corporate elite, who have hoarded record profits amid the COVID-19 pandemic and successfully lobbied against state efforts to make the Illinois tax code more progressive, have now cast their lot with Vallas, who has openly aligned himself with the political ambitions of this privileged cohort.
Chief Executive Officer of Wrecking Public Schools
Contrary to what he may claim to be, Vallas is not a “results” candidate. He is a right-wing ideologue, and every job he has held in every city that he has held it in, attests to this fact. It is not simply that he believes in “efficiency by any means necessary” as much as he believes in an ideological project that takes the “public” out of “public services,” mainly education, and handing it over to the highest bidder.
Vallas is a known entity in Chicago politics and in education policy circles around the country. From 1995–2001, Vallas was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.
During his tenure, Vallas oversaw what would become a model for education “reform” advocates around the nation: the increased dependence of schools on standardized testing and the privatization of public schools through magnets and charters. In 2001, Vallas and then CPS board president Gery Chico resigned after test scores began to decline, reversing promised gains that both men had promised would come via a more privatized and managed model for the school system.
After leaving Chicago, Vallas took a job as CEO of Philadelphia Public Schools, where his privatization scheme received mixed reviews, at best. The conservative RAND institute found that, “Philadelphia became a test case for the private management of public schools and other interventions sanctioned by the No Child Left Behind Act.”
While both of these professional endeavors left Vallas a villain in the eyes of teachers unions, conservative politicians of both parties pursuing radical “business-minded” approaches to education found Vallas’s record appealing.
The prevailing ethos in both the Democratic and Republican party establishments in the early 2000s was that inner-city public schools needed to be run like businesses in order to minimize waste, fire “bad teachers,” and prioritize student academic gains in the form of metrics. These capitalistic reforms to what is a fundamental public service did not yield the desired results for students and their families, but they did serve to make corporate charter school backers wealthier and increase the influence of conservative education policies in largely Democratic inner cities.
In 2007, Vallas left Philadelphia to oversee the New Orleans Recovery School District, where he again pursued the privatization of public schools through “disaster capitalism” (the exploitation of crises to force market reforms are supposedly better-equipped to deal with catastrophes than public serviced ones), namely, in the conversion of traditional public schools into charter schools.
Vallas’s record at the NOLA schools won praise by charter school advocates for increasing test scores, but criticism by community members for his defensive leadership style when criticized, uneven academic gains, and unequal access for families who had difficulty navigating the “school choice” model, particularly those with special needs students.
Vallas’s tenure followed the natural disaster that forever tied unmasked, militarized racism at the heart of US government with the rising threat of climate chaos and displacement in the public conscience. His unprecedented conversion of the public school system to networks of charters inspired then Democratic education secretary Arne Duncan to comment that Hurricane Katrina “was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”
Vallas resigned in 2011, taking jobs in Haiti and Chile before being hired as the interim superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools in 2012.
Vallas’ job in Bridgeport lasted only a year, after a judge ordered him to be removed from the office when he got into a legal battle over whether or not he was even qualified for the job in the first place. Vallas opted to resign instead and was chosen by then Illinois governor Pat Quinn as his running mate for the 2014 Illinois gubernatorial election, in which they were defeated by Republican billionaire Bruce Rauner.
Every one of Vallas’s professional endeavors to privatize public education across the country has earned him mixed to negative reviews from the communities he has served along with the applause of conservative charter school advocates. With Vallas, the bug is actually the feature.
The principle that he has devoted himself to—that “school choice” is the solution to failing schools—has failed vulnerable Black and brown parents in low-income neighborhoods for the better part of the twenty-first century. These families often come from areas where property values are disproportionately lower than their white-majority counterparts, thus giving themselves and their children an inherent disadvantage in funding and resources in a country where a majority of the public schools are financed through property taxes.
This classist and racist funding model for public education has long gone ignored and unchecked by state and city lawmakers across the country, and the devastating effects of this gross disparity are evident in many neighborhoods across Chicago.
Paul’s One-Point Plan
Vallas’s plan for education in this race does not address racial and class funding disparities in CPS. But he does offer support of “safer” public schools (i.e. hiring more police in schools), while “expanding quality school options” (i.e. charter expansion) and “empowering parents,” a common cliché among pro-privatization advocates that takes on new meaning amid right-wing efforts to ban books and curriculum.
When he’s not talking about privatizing Chicago Public Schools (and using vague corporate rhetoric to do it), Vallas spends most of his time on the campaign trail advocating for more police . . . everywhere.
Public transit? More cops. What about affordable housing? They can’t be affordable without cops! Economic development? More cops. Budget deficit? More cops. Spouse cheated on you? Should’ve hired a cop!
It is unsurprising that Vallas has not come up with any innovative, creative, or effective solution to Chicago’s crime problem. It is nonetheless embarrassing that the Chicago political establishment has still chosen to cast their lot with Vallas, despite him proposing more of the “tough on crime” policies that incarcerated a generation of Black and brown men and his record of having destroyed working-class communities of all races in cities across the country.
What could explain this? Why on God’s earth would the wealthiest and supposedly “smartest” people in the third-largest city in the country pledge their loyalty to a candidate with a mediocre professional record, an absent platform (or a disastrous one) in response to Chicago’s current socio-economic crises, and nothing to say about crime or community violence other than “more cops”?
The ugly answer lies deep within the warped framework of thought that permeates the Chicago press: the myth of the competent white man.
Since the days of mayor Richard J. Daley, who ruled Chicago with an iron fist through patronage, racial segregation, and state violence for over two decades, a myth has developed in the mainstream Chicago press; one that seeks to obscure the bloody legacy of Daley and the Democratic machine while giving unearned attention to the “positive” aspects of Daley’s reign.
This myth functions similarly to any myth that white supremacy depends on for survival. After all, it is no secret that, in order to preserve itself, Whiteness depends on the perpetuation of mythology and a rewriting of its past in order to make itself more appealing in the present.
Whether it’s the “Lost Cause” revisionist history that poisoned the minds of elitist white southerners in the Jim Crow South, or a desperate attempt in the present day to frame the Civil Rights Movement as a nice dinner party between Black Americans and their oppressors (instead of a radical Christian Leftist freedom movement), white mythology serves as a useful tool to maintain systems of oppression by pretending that the oppressed never really had it that bad.
In Chicago, phrases like “the city that works” are evidence of the prevailing and enduring nature of mythology in Chicago history. Chicago, for Black and brown people, was never a “city that worked.” It was always a city that worked . . . for wealthy white people.
Whether it was the racist practice of redlining, the chronic disinvestment and overcrowding of public housing, the collapse of Chicago’s social safety net in the form of school and hospital closures, the billions of dollars given in tax breaks for multinational corporations downtown, and an increasingly militant and violent police presence in the neighborhoods, Chicago has always been a city run by and for the most powerful and, consequently, the most white.
Only mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor, serves as a notable and remarkable exception to this, as he devoted his administration to equitable investment and good governance, amid racist opposition from the city council. However, even he fell victim to the ‘competent white man’ myth, and was criticized in life and in death for his perceived “lack of attention to detail.” Nevermind, of course, that Washington was the most detail-oriented and brilliant mind to occupy the 5th floor.
Unfortunately, this white myth has manifested itself time and time again in the decades after mayor Daley’s death in 1976. This myth, that Daley’s Chicago, and thus the Chicago of ‘competent white men,’ made Chicago a world-class city, is perhaps best credited with Vallas’s current standing as a mayoral frontrunner, and the glaring lack of media scrutiny to his half-baked record as a schools’ chief and his current inability to come up with a new idea as a mayoral candidate.
There is no need to critique Vallas, in the eyes of so many in the Chicago press, because he is white, and his Whiteness automatically makes him more qualified to be mayor of Chicago than any of his Black and Latinx opponents. White men, after all, built Chicago; they made it what it is today. What could go wrong if the city hired another white man as its chief executive?
The racist historical mythology that has long protected the late mayor Daley’s record from the in-depth scrutiny it rightfully deserves (minus, of course, the incredible work of Chicago history writers Gary Rivlin, Elizabeth Taylor, Adam Cohen, Dempsey Travis, and other historians, respectively), is the same myth that has put Paul Vallas in the run-off election to take place on April 4.
Vallas’ best demographic, unsurprisingly, are white voters. His weakest demographic, also unsurprisingly, are Black voters. Does the mainstream Chicago press care about the feelings of Black families across the city? Are they not worthy of the attention of the benevolent and supposedly brilliant minds at the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board? It does not seem so.
The same poll finds that African Americans are the most distrustful demographic of the CPD and have particular disdain for the police union, the FOP, which endorsed Vallas.
Pay it no mind, according to the Tribune Editorial Board! After all, the entire press has spent the better part of the last two years manufacturing consent for a candidate like Vallas; focusing more on sensational headlines of violent crime and filling the news feeds with almost pornographically violent videos than they’ve spent on the systemic disinvestment and racism that has led to such crime.
It is in their interests, they seem to have gathered, for Chicago voters to be more fearful and anxious about the future of their city than hopeful and optimistic that things, can indeed, be better.
The only people with the power to stop Vallas and the train of neoliberal austerity and racist crack-epidemic policies he rode in on are the multiracial, multigenerational working people of Chicago.
Let’s hope that our voices, and not the privileged views of a small group of elitist editors, are the ones that ring loudest on Election Day and long after.