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Public education as a public good hangs in the balance in the mayoral runoff election.

Historian David Labaree notes that for most of U.S. history, public education was understood as a public good, necessary for democracy and equality, benefiting everyone in the community. Former middle school teacher and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson’s public education vision supports this. Former schools chief Paul Vallas’s public education vision supports the idea of public education as a private good—“school choice,” sorting students for individual gains as consumers. These political traditions and ideas have a history.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Civil Rights organizers struggled nationally to make a democratic vision of public education as a public good a reality for Black communities. In Chicago, organizers pushed back against Mayor Richard J. Daley and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Superintendent Benjamin Willis’s segregated and unequal schools—under-resourced, overcrowded Black schools that denied Black teachers access to certification.

In 1963, nearly 225,000 students boycotted CPS to demand fully funded public education for Black children. In 1968, thousands more Black high school students protested for better facilities, more Black staff and culturally relevant curriculum. Black educators like Lillie Peoples, Hannibal Afrik, and Dr. Grady Jordan supported these demands, while advocating for Black teachers’ dignity and jobs.

These struggles for education as a public good had some success. CPS hired more Black teachers and administrators and implemented some curricular changes.

Nationally, the racist backlash to Black Civil Rights gains advanced the idea of public education as a private good. After Brown v. Board of Education required Southern schools to desegregate, white parents demanded “school choice” to use public funds for tuition waivers—vouchers—to attend segregated all-white private schools. This racist backlash was supported by conservative University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s market-based approaches to privatizing public education. However, these ideas didn’t enter the mainstream until the 1990s.

In 1995, the Illinois state legislature granted mayoral control of schools to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley named Paul Vallas—his budget director who had no significant education experience—as the first Chief Executive Officer in CPS’s corporate reorganization. Vallas’s school choice policies treated public education as a private good. He narrowly focused on high-stakes tests and accountability, mandated curricula that taught to the test, fired entire schools’ staff and forced them to reapply for their jobs (disproportionately harming Black teachers), and oversaw charter school expansion—public funds for privately-managed education.

Under Vallas, the seeds of privatizing public education, planted in the racist Civil Rights backlash and Friedman’s plans for privatizing public education, blossomed. Chicago, and Vallas, in particular, played an outsized role in implementing this trend nationally. He left Chicago in 2001 and continued to expand the privatization of public schools in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and internationally. 

Meanwhile back in Chicago, since the early 2000s, parents, students, community organizations and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) fought back against education privatization, promoting a vision for fully resourced public schools as community hubs and necessary public goods. As a teacher, Brandon Johnson taught under the conditions that Paul Vallas’s school reforms wrought—a tiered, stratified, underfunded, inequitable school system that diverted public funds to private management companies. Johnson was mentored by veteran Black educators, including Dr. Grady Jordan and CTU president Karen Lewis, who had been organizing for education justice since the 1960s as a teacher and student, respectively. These educators continued a tradition of grassroots community struggle for equitable access to public education as a public good.

Research shows that over the last 30 years, the narrow focus on high-stakes testing, punitive accountability, vouchers, school choice and privatization policies, has failed to close opportunity gaps and deliver educational justice to Black, Latiné, and low-income children. These policies harmed all public school students by siphoning off public resources to fund privatized education. Moreover, privatizing public education has facilitated attacks on LGBTQ+ students and on the teaching of race and gender.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that public schools truly are the last thread of our public social safety net. They are not only an essential public good for learning and democracy, but for universal access to food, health care, social services and community care. 

We can’t return to the failed privatization policies of the past. Brandon Johnson is the only candidate in the mayoral race proposing an education reform that we have not yet actually tried in the history of this country—investing in a democratic vision of fully funded public schools as a public good, equitably available to all, to benefit the many, not the few.

is a historian of education, African American history and the history of Chicago, and the author of A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s.