Paul Vallas, the conservative Democrat facing off against former public school teacher Brandon Johnson in Chicago’s April 4 mayoral runoff election, claims he “has made it his life’s work to restore broken education systems.” But as education researchers who have documented the destructive impact of Vallas’s leadership of school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, we need to set the record straight. Our on-the-ground research and engagement with students, teachers and parents — especially in Black and Latinx communities — tells a different story.
Teaching to the Test in Chicago
After the Illinois State Legislature gave Mayor Richard M. Daley control of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 1995, Daley appointed Vallas, his budget director, CEO of CPS. Vallas claims in his six years as CEO he increased test scores and turned around CPS. But I, Pauline Lipman, intensively studied the Vallas years in CPS, worked with teachers, and saw first-hand what the Vallas wrecking ball did to schools in Black and Latinx communities, and the legacy of school closings and privatization he left us with.
Vallas’s solution for struggling schools was a corporate-style, top-down accountability system of high-stakes tests, test-prep teaching and punishment for failure — an experiment on Chicago’s Black and Brown children that set the stage for national education policy under George W. Bush. Schools that failed to meet test score targets were put on a warning list, on probation, or reconstituted by Vallas’s central office.
Counter to research consensus, based on their scores on a single test, tens of thousands of students were sent to summer school, held back a grade for as long as three years, prevented from 8th grade graduation, or assigned to remedial transition high schools where a pared-down curriculum of math, English and world studies revolved around intensive test preparation.
It was typical for schools, particularly in Black communities, to spend up to one quarter of the school year drilling for tests in reading and math. Music and art were cancelled and social studies began in May — after testing. Engaging, culturally relevant classes were turned into test prep. In some schools, Test Best and Test Ready booklets were the curriculum for weeks. CPS Office of Accountability staff told me that when Vallas left in 2001, 59 schools — mostly Black — were using mandated Direct Instruction, in which teachers read scripts and students respond with scripted answers. Not surprisingly, under this regime test scores went up. However, a 1999 National Research Council assessment expert “concluded that Chicago’s regular year and summer school curricula were so closely geared to the [standardized test] that it was impossible to distinguish real subject mastery from mastery of skills and knowledge useful for passing this particular test.”
Turning schools into test prep factories — and punishing and publicly shaming “failing” schools, students, teachers and parents in Black communities — took a toll. Some of the most dedicated and revered teachers left the system. For example, in one Black elementary school Lipman worked with, from 1997-2000, 26 of 37 teachers left, to be replaced by a succession of inexperienced teachers and interns. An award-winning teacher at the school explained that they couldn’t live with the ethical crisis of Vallas’s policies; for both teachers and students “it’s like a hammer just knocking them down.” A 2000 University of Chicago study reported nearly one-third of eighth graders retained in 1997 dropped out by fall 1999. In 2000, Parents United for Responsible Education won a civil rights complaint against CPS under Vallas for adverse discriminatory impact of the retention policy on Black and Latinx students. Expulsions, particularly of Black students, also surged, as documented in a 2001 Chicago Reporter article titled “Alternative education: Segregation or solution?”
When test scores flattened in 2001, Vallas left. But the system he set up of ranking and sorting schools based on an inappropriate use of standardized tests, and disregarding the historical disinvestment and racism schools had suffered, laid the foundation for almost 200 school closings and turn-arounds and the education market that followed. These school closings, 90 percent predominantly Black, devastated Black communities in particular. Vallas’s electoral campaign focuses on fighting crime, but the disruptions from the school closings that were a major factor in the destabilization of Black communities can be traced back to Vallas’s reign at CPS.
Broken Promises in Philadelphia
As part of my research on Philly’s Black educators and the politics of public school reform, I, Camika Royal, examined the Paul Vallas-era there. In 2002, the state of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia and instituted the School Reform Commission (SRC) as its governing body. The SRC brought Paul Vallas from Chicago to Philadelphia as its public schools CEO. In Philadelphia, instead of repairing an education system that harmed the marginalized, Vallas consistently over-promised and under-delivered. He funneled state funds for public schools to enrich private companies. He shed veteran Black educators from the district. And he made bad money deals. The SRC’s and Vallas’s corporate solutions deepened and widened the financial problems they were sent to ameliorate. What initially looked like improvement was a shell game that left SDP more fiscally distressed under state control than local control.
The SRC tasked Vallas with closing test score gaps by race. By the end of Vallas’s five-year Philadelphia tenure, the rift in test scores between racial groups was virtually unchanged. He opened more new small high schools capped at 400 students enrolled, but these schools were often too small to include sports or other activities that help keep students engaged. If a small school’s enrollment fell below 50 percent, it could be closed, and students would be shuffled to other schools. With this Darwinian approach to school reform, Vallas created uncertainty and instability for an already vulnerable, school-dependent population while paying corporations, nonprofits, and universities for technical assistance and expensive interventions.
Vallas and the SRC also reformed faculty and staff policies for the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). Many Black educators were concerned with the ways these shifts impacted SDP’s professional culture. One retired Philly educator quoted in the book Not Paved For Us recalled that Vallas, “brought in parasites that didn’t know the culture of the city and didn’t have respect for what existed. … The total morale began to chip away. There’s a number of us who were hired all around the same time. And we were talking about, I can’t wait to get out of here. And then people you don’t expect to retire came out when I retired. It’s like a brain drain of sorts.” Vallas’s changes resulted in there being fewer Black educators working for SDP in 2008 than there were in 1964.
Charter schools and private management of public schools expanded massively under Vallas and the SRC. Despite the resulting increase in per pupil expenditure for students attending privately managed public schools, student achievement was no better than at other SDP schools.
Vallas was expected to ameliorate funding and budgetary concerns that had long beleaguered Philly’s public schools. But the mayor and city council were concerned about money management and using federal funds for unauthorized programming. As documented in Not Paved For Us, Vallas and the SRC sold school district buildings to pay for one new building that cost more than what the sold buildings generated combined. After assuring the public of SDP’s balanced budget, Vallas left Philadelphia for New Orleans shortly after a $73 million budget gap was revealed.
Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans
In 2007, following Hurricane Katrina, Vallas was appointed Superintendent of the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, an arm of the Louisiana Department of Education assigned to take over “failing” school districts. Vallas rapidly overhauled New Orleans’s largely Black traditional, public school system, working closely with Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana superintendent of education, an attorney with no formal education training or experience running school districts.
As superintendent of the RSD, Vallas expanded existing departments that managed charter schools and created new ones. At the same time, traditional, primarily Black, schools were either never reopened (without regard to their physical condition and the availability and willingness of veteran teachers to return to their schools), were co-located with new charter schools, or given to a newly approved charter management organization.
In 2010, “the Pauls” worked in concert to not only prevent the return of traditional public schools back to the district (as stipulated in emergency legislation after Katrina), but to reconstruct policy so Charter management organizations would decide whether they would go under the control of the local school board. Vallas also resisted New Orleans’s historically Black teachers’ union and embraced Teach For America (TFA) and teachNOLA — private, fast-track teacher-certification programs. In a conference sponsored by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute in 2009, Vallas described both TFA and teachNOLA as “endless supplies of labor.”
As in Philadelphia, in New Orleans Vallas had a track record of over-spending and expanding the RSD, creating an inaccessible, confusing bureaucracy — so much so that parents had virtually no advocate within the RSD when their children were “counseled out” or not admitted to a school for whatever subjective criteria the new charter schools put in place. Charter schools had no clear governance, since Vallas’s position was that charter schools were autonomous and could essentially do what they wanted.
The enrollment and admissions process became such a nightmare for parents who had children with special needs that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit against the School District, the RSD, and Louisiana education authorities for violating the civil rights of children with special needs and failing to follow the law. After five years of delaying tactics, education authorities finally settled and agreed to changing policies Vallas had put in place related to admissions, in-school support, and mandatory oversight of charter schools and their special education practices. Since Vallas departed New Orleans to Haiti to orchestrate the nation’s post-earthquake “recovery,” pro-charter, anti-teachers’ union education reformers have fully permeated New Orleans’s public education system.
From Chicago, to Philadelphia, to New Orleans — three school districts serving primarily students of color — Paul Vallas left a trail of top-down, punitive, destabilizing and fiscally irresponsible policies. Our research, and the experiences of the many educators and community members we documented and worked with, reveal that rather than “restoring broken education systems,” Vallas has a pattern of leadership that demoralizes teachers and undermines public education.