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On April 4, Chicago voters will decide between two candidates with starkly different visions for the city and its 340,000 public school students. One is Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a former public school teacher and seasoned organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The other is Paul Vallas, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from 1995 to 2002 and a longtime proponent of charter schools in districts he’s managed around the country. 

The election is a flashpoint not just in the struggle for the direction CPS will take, but also in the battle for the future of public schools nationwide: whether it will be one of school choice—which broadly includes expanding open enrollment programs, vouchers and charter schools—or reinvestment in traditional neighborhood schools staffed by unionized teachers. The battle is one that Vallas has often found himself at the center of in the cities where he has been a school district administrator.

Between stints as an administrator, Vallas occasionally sought higher office: he ran for Illinois governor in 2002, flirted with running again in 2010, ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 and first ran for mayor of Chicago in 2019. Now, running on a law-and-order campaign that capitalized on white voters’ fears of violent crime, Vallas is poised to take charge not just of a school district but America’s third-largest city. 

Mercedes Schneider is a longtime educator who has written extensively about the privatization of education and published three books on the topic. “He was always, I think, trying to get back to Chicago,” she told The TRiiBE. 

After departing Chicago in 2002, Vallas ran Philadelphia’s school district for five years, then took over the New Orleans Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011, and ran the Bridgeport, CT school district from December 2011 to November 2013. In each city, he opened charter schools, promoted military schools, and expanded standardized testing and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. He also ran school districts in Haiti and Chile between 2010 and 2012.

“He liked not answering to anyone,” said Schneider, who has taught in St. Tammany Parish, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans proper, since 2007. “Wherever he goes, he leaves and there’s questions, and a mess, and promises didn’t pan out.”

Vallas first began championing charter schools and standardized testing in Chicago in 1995. The Republican-controlled state legislature had just given total control of CPS to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Vallas, his budget director, as the school district’s first CEO. It was an unusual pick: previously, the district had been led by superintendents, not chief executive officers, and they had backgrounds in education, not finance. Vallas was also the first white CPS administrator since the district was desegregated in 1981.

His approach to managing the school district reflected his fiscal background: he balanced the budget, partly by redirecting tax revenues that had previously been exclusively dedicated to the teachers pension fund to its general education fund instead. He also took out $666 million in capital bonds that will cost the city $1.5 billion with interest, according to a newly released report

Vallas greatly expanded standardized testing and non-neighborhood schools like charters and selective enrollment high schools, and he started 13 International Baccalaureate programs in public high schools. His tenure also coincided with the institution of zero-tolerance discipline policies and the opening of some of the district’s first public military schools, the Carver Military Academy in Altgeld Gardens and the Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville on the city’s South Side. 

On the 2023 campaign trail in Chicago, Vallas has said he’d use militarized charter schools and ROTC programs as incubators for future law enforcement officers. At the Women Take Action Alliance Mayoral Forum on March 11 at the Chicago Temple in the heart of the Loop, Vallas and Johnson were asked how they would recruit more women to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Johnson answered first; the solution was to “create a working environment that’s favorable to women,” he said. “That’s in every sector. Unfortunately, we have relied so heavily on law enforcement to do and handle every single dynamic, much like we do with teachers. And that’s why we’re having a tough time recruiting and retaining educators as well. We have to improve the conditions in which individuals are being asked to serve. As mayor of the city of Chicago, I’m going to tell you the truth. We’re going to create better environments so that law enforcement can do their job and not someone else’s.”

Vallas took a different approach. “The way you recruit in a diversified way is real simple,” he said. “We have 10,000 young people in ROTC programs. I opened seven military and first responder high schools in Chicago. And there are, I think, 40 ROTC high schools, and 46 percent of those 10,000 students are women. We can provide a direct pipeline from the ROTC programs” to CPD. 

A 2021 Chalkbeat Chicago investigation found CPS students at nine predominantly Black and Latiné schools were being automatically enrolled in JROTC without their knowledge or consent. The report noted that at the time 94 percent of CPS’s nearly 8,000 JROTC cadets were Black or Latiné, despite making up only 83 percent of the district-wide student body.

Militarized public and charter schools are “ways to take urban, impoverished kids and get them in the military,” Maria Pereira, a former member of the elected Bridgeport school board who clashed with Vallas during his time there, told The TRiiBE. “You’ll never see something like that in a white, affluent neighborhood.”

Little Rock

Vallas has been involved in opening at least 12 militarized charter schools around the country. He is currently listed as the CEO of the Arkansas Military and First Responders Academy (AMFRA), a charter school that is slated to open in Little Rock in August. According to minutes posted on AMFRA’s website, Vallas attended a board meeting most recently on December 15, 2022 as CEO.

Vallas’s campaign did not respond to The TRiiBE’s requests for comment.

According to its website, a first responder curriculum is “central to the school’s mission.” The school’s commandant, Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jason Smedley, has a background in legislative and public affairs, but said he has volunteered with youth through his church and has experience mentoring young Marines. Kevin Durand, the school’s “chief academic officer,” is described as a long-time educator on its website, and he has worked in charter schools in Little Rock.

Smedley said Vallas’s involvement in AMFRA predates his own employment at the school, which began in August 2022.

“[Vallas] played an intricate part in the application process, approval from the Arkansas Department of Education as far as getting the charter, and establishing all the requirements of a school in Arkansas,” Smedley told The TRiiBE. “He’s given me the opportunity and leeway to move forward with his initial guidance and, basically, this model that he has for these types of schools.”

Vallas wasn’t paid for the work. Asked why, Smedley said, “I can’t speak for him, but I will say that I know that he loves the model, and he was looking for new areas to have this model, and it just so happened that Little Rock [was] the best place for that to happen.”

Kristy Mosby, president of the Little Rock Educators Association, the teachers union there, is not enthusiastic about AMFRA. 

“We really don’t believe that charter schools are good for our public school students,” Mosby told The TRiiBE. “When public charter schools have opened in our city, they don’t fare any better than regular public schools.” 

Students who encounter challenges in Little Rock charters tend to be sent back to the traditional schools they started at, and “typically come back with more deficits than when they left,” Mosby said. Smedley said students will not be expelled from AMFRA for poor academic performance, but could be expelled if they break rules in the student handbook, which is still being developed.

Despite its website claiming the charter school “ensures that its educators are all state-certified,” job listings for a half-dozen teacher positions at AMFRA say that teacher licensure is not required. Smedley said that the majority of people who’ve applied to teach there do have licenses. 

“Students need certified teachers in the classroom,” Mosby said. “They need teachers who have been properly trained to educate them.” 

Charter schools often work with programs like Teach For America (TFA), which enlists college grads to commit to teaching for two years. TFA recruits are trained for their new positions in a five- to nine-week summer program, but are not required to be certified. 

“They’re really part of the de-skilling and de-professionalization of teachers,” Mary Christianakis, a professor at Occidental College who studies development and education, told The TRiiBE. “Using the narratives of teacher shortage, they provide both easy access and cheap labor in the teaching force.” She added that she thinks “it’s done deliberately to undermine unions, to undermine the Department of Education, to monetize teaching and take it out of state supervision and state certification.”

Educators in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport also described the expansion of charter schools and hiring of TFA members as means to undermine unions and relax requirements for educators. They described similar practices in every district Vallas ran, including promotion of military/first-responder schools and heavy reliance on standardized testing, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and privately managed alternative charters with draconian rules.  



Vallas took over the School District of Philadelphia as CEO in 2002, after the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature disbanded the Board of Education and replaced it with the School Reform Commission (SRC). Initially hailed as a financial whiz, Vallas left the district four years later when a “surprise” budget shortfall of $73 million evaporated any support he had on the SRC. 

“Last April, I was told we were on solid financial ground,” SRC commissioner Martin Bednarek told Vallas at a November 2006 meeting about the deficit. “I really feel betrayed.” 

Under Vallas’s tenure, Philadelphia underwent what was then the largest privatization of a public school system anywhere in the country. He opened 15 new charter schools over the protests of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who called for a moratorium on new charters in 2006. Charter school teachers are typically nonunionized, and Pennsylvania state law only requires that three-quarters of teachers in charters be certified to teach.  

“The charter expansion really caused a lot of the funding problems in Philadelphia,” Deb Grill, a former Philadelphia public school librarian, told The TRiiBE. “We now have 83 charters in Philadelphia, and once they’re open, they’re almost impossible to close.”

Mastery Schools was one of the first charter school companies in the district, and it took over three public schools during Vallas’s administration. It now runs 23. When schools were converted to charters run by Mastery, the company would “kick out all the teachers, [and] exclude many of the neighborhood children who would have gone there as their neighborhood schools,” Lisa Haver, a longtime teacher in Philadelphia, told The TRiiBE. “Control was taken away not just from the school’s community but from the community at large.” She added that by bringing them in early, Vallas gave Mastery a “foothold” in the district. 

Vallas also expanded standardized testing to the point where students were being tested once every six weeks. Curriculum was tied to a schedule dictated by the testing regimen. 

“You couldn’t stop to remediate anything,” Grill said. “If kids didn’t get it, you couldn’t go back and work one-on-one. You didn’t have time in class because the students were tested every six weeks.”

Test results were posted on “data walls” in school buildings to show which classes were making the most progress. “It was humiliating,” Grill said. “A lot of our kids were behind. A lot of our kids suffered trauma, and trauma affects the way you learn. So they were behind, they weren’t on grade level, and it made them feel like failures. I hated giving those tests.”  

Under Vallas, two public military academies opened: the Philadelphia Military Academy (PMA) at Leeds opened in 2005, and the PMA at Elverson the following year. Both emphasized JROTC training and were hailed as part of a wave of military public schools that had begun sweeping the nation around the turn of the millennium. Most were opened in low-income, majority-Black and -Latiné neighborhoods. 

At the time, Vallas told the New York Times militarized schools offered students “a very effective character-building experience.”

In 2007, dozens of PMA-at-Elverson students staged a protest at Philadelphia’s school headquarters over problems at the military academy, including substandard lunches and water, textbooks missing pages, filthy bathrooms, zero sports electives and teachers who didn’t teach. The district’s deputy chief academic officer promised to make improvements. In 2013, the two PMAs merged, and by 2015 parents were expressing satisfaction. 

Around the same time the PMAs were opening in Philadelphia, parents and activists in Chicago—which had seen the largest expansion of military schools in the country under Vallas and his successor, Arne Duncan—were fighting the establishment of a naval academy in Senn High School on the city’s North Side. 

Duncan, who endorsed Vallas’s campaign for Chicago mayor on March 24, told the Times he was “the biggest fan of small schools everywhere, and the military academy option is very attractive.” Despite the protests, a wing of Senn was converted to a naval academy in 2004; it moved to a standalone building in 2019.

Vallas increased the number of International Baccalaureate schools in Philadelphia—but also did the same for disciplinary schools, the management of which had been outsourced to for-profit companies such as Tennessee-based Community Education Partners (CEP) by his predecessor, David Hornbeck, in 2000. CEP has had its share of controversy: it was sued in 2008 by the American Civil Liberties Union for allegedly providing “fundamentally inferior” education to students in Atlanta, which canceled its contract with the company in 2009.

Under Vallas, the district had a strict zero-tolerance policy that caused students to be sent to CEP schools over minor infractions. 

“Vallas was very much a ‘no-excuses’ guy,” Haver said. She said he went so far as to organize a “no-excuses” parade outside of the school district’s headquarters.

One zero-tolerance case Haver recalled involved a sixth-grade girl who responded to a student hassling her by threatening them with a pair of toenail clippers. As a result, the girl was sent to the vice principal, then shipped to a CEP school. “We saw more and more students go to CEP,” Haver said. “It was like we had our own little in-house school-to-prison pipeline.”

In CEP schools, discipline was strictly enforced. “The kids had to walk in line with their hands behind their backs when they were going from classroom to classroom,” Grill said. “They weren’t allowed to carry pens or pencils with them. It would be given to them in the classroom, and they would have to turn them back in.” 

CEP’s contracts eventually grew to cost the Philadelphia school district $28 million annually. The company left the district in 2010.

Vallas left Philadelphia for New Orleans in 2007 after budget shortfalls continued, test scores remained low among 11th graders, and the dropout rate continued to hover around 45 percent. 

“For years, all we saw was either neighborhood schools being converted to charters, or more and more charters opening up and poaching kids from the neighborhood schools and directing funds, diverting funds from neighborhood schools,” Haver said. “Until, you know, seven years after Vallas left, in 2013—like Chicago did—we had massive closing of public schools.”

New Orleans

When Vallas went to New Orleans in 2007, the city was still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which had made landfall two years earlier. In 2003, a Democrat-controlled Louisiana legislature had taken control of schools across the state by establishing the Recovery School District (RSD), which took over “underperforming” schools, the majority of which were initially in New Orleans.

Dix Moore-Broussard, a longtime arts teacher in New Orleans, told The TRiiBE that after Katrina, the New Orleans Parish school board laid everyone off. Teachers were later replaced with younger, whiter, out-of-town TFA recruits. (In 2010 Duncan, who was then Secretary of Education, said Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”) 

“We got notice that they weren’t opening the schools and we could go pick up our last check,” Moore-Broussard said. “Everybody just got $2,000, and it was the most insulting thing ever.”

Upon his arrival, Vallas immediately set to work opening more charter schools, and the trend continued after he left. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools network, a 501(c)(3) started by two TFA alums, was one of the first in the district, and it now runs 13 charters there. District-wide, 45 separate charter school organizations are now operating in New Orleans.

Vallas later boasted in a 2020 version of his resume that he “rebuilt the district from scratch” and “hired 500 new teachers in 90 days.” New Orleans is now the only city in America with a school district that is entirely made up of charters, something Vallas also took credit for: he wrote that he “Implemented reforms that created the nation’s first 100 percent parental choice district, with all schools public, non-selective and nonprofit.”  

Vallas continued the practice of staffing the charters with TFA recruits. A 2013 report by the pro-charter Cowen Institute at Tulane University found that by 2011, 38 percent of teachers in New Orleans had less than three years of classroom experience, and schools there had twice as many first-year teachers as the rest of Louisiana.

“When the state would take over a school, it would turn it over to a charter operator,” Schneider told The TRiiBE. “That makes New Orleans a ‘portfolio district.’ Now, that sounds very fancy, but what it means is most of the time, no one was really coordinating among the schools.” 

When a student left a charter, she said, no one was keeping track of where they landed. Zero-tolerance policies exacerbated the problem. 

“It was very easy to just drop kids and not track them,” Schenider said. “There were games that were played, where we’re not suspending you, but we’re telling you to go home. We’re not going to mark you as [having] dropped out, we’ll just mark it as ‘transferred out of state.’”

Ashana Bigard, a longtime parent activist in New Orleans, told The TRiiBE Vallas was behind the zero-tolerance policies in RSD schools. 

“Paul Vallas thought it was a great idea, with a whole traumatized population of children, to have a strict zero-tolerance policy—not therapy, not counseling,” she said. “There was no deescalation training for teenagers, none of that. It was just treating our children like absolute garbage after they were traumatized. It was horrific.”

According to Bigard, a lot of kids were arrested for “disruption of a school process” if they showed up late to class and refused to be kicked out for tardiness. Black girls were arrested for having rat-tail combs.

In one instance, Bigard said a six-year-old student was expelled and charged with possession and distribution of a controlled substance because he brought Tums to school and gave them to his classmates, thinking they were candy. “It took us three months and threatening press conferences to get that resolved,” she said. 

In disciplinary schools in New Orleans, Bigard described similar policies to those Grill talked about in Philadelphia’s CEP schools. 

“They have to walk in lines, a lot of times with their hands in the handcuffed position. They call it the ‘chicken-wing,’” she said. “They can’t talk during lunch, they don’t have recess. You know, it’s just, the inhumanity. I think the impact it had on Black youth in particular is that they felt there was no safe haven, there was nobody that cared about them or even understood them. They felt very isolated, alone and rejected.”

Three years into Vallas’s tenure in New Orleans, nine parents brought a lawsuit against the RSD for discriminating against special needs students. The lawsuit alleged that students were kicked out of class and excessively suspended for “manifestations” of their disabilities, that some were unable to find charter schools willing to enroll them, and that they were not being given state-mandated Individual Education Plans. After winding its way through the courts, the lawsuit resulted in the district being placed under a federal consent decree in 2010. It’s still under the consent decree.

In 2008, Vallas attempted to open a military/first-responder academy in St. Claude, a majority-Black neighborhood that abuts the Lower Ninth Ward to the northeast. That April, the principal of Frederick Douglass High School abruptly told parents the school was closing. Freshmen would instead be enrolled in a new Law and Public Safety Academy (LSPA), which would be housed in trailers and have first-responder and military electives. Other grades would be dispersed among the RSD’s other 20 schools citywide. 

The primary justification for closing Douglass was a projected $35 million renovation cost, despite the fact that the school hadn’t flooded during Katrina. Incesed at the prospect of students being taught in trailers—which, after the debacle of FEMA trailers post-Katrina, were particularly insulting—parents and teachers fought back. The Frederick Douglass Community Coalition (FDCC) pressured Vallas to keep the school open at a community meeting in May 2008.

Greta Gladney, an FDCC member, told The TRiiBE the group had been involved in developing improvements to the school since before Katrina. They organized opposition to replacing Douglass with the military academy until the plan was dropped.

“There was a plan to have students in trailers, but there was so much public outrage and uprising that it didn’t happen,” Gladney said. “Because of the experience of residents who were staying in trailers after their homes were flooded, there was such a lot of public outcry against that, and that didn’t happen.”

But she said that at subsequent meetings with Vallas, he continued to push the idea of making Douglass a charter, which like all of New Orleans schools, it now is. 

“We were trying to talk about what to do with Douglass, and he asked us, ‘have you thought about chartering?’ It’s like that was the only game in town,” she said. “Now, it’s a KIPP school.”



Vallas was hired to run the Bridgeport, CT school district in 2011. At the time, the district was struggling with a multimillion-dollar deficit and had been taken over by a school board appointed by the state. The ousted board members later sued, alleging the board had been illegally dissolved, and won. Vallas was forced out by a lawsuit shortly after they were reelected.

“Eventually, through a grassroots effort the board was flipped in the election of 2013, and a board came in that was not amenable to Mr. Vallas and his hijinks, and he left us soon after that,” Gary Peluchette, the president of the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA) during Vallas’s administration, told The TRiiBE

Peluchette said that as superintendent, Vallas refused to hear grievances from union members, despite that being “clearly delineated” by their contract. “He appointed somebody to hear grievances, and then when we would go to the [school] board he would become angry, ‘Why didn’t you bring this to me?’” Peluchette said. “We very rarely met with him. He was very demanding; he wanted this, that, and the other, and if the BEA wasn’t amenable to it, he would have a tantrum.”

The Connecticut Education Association (CEA) twice threatened to file unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board, Peluchette said. In one case, he said Vallas had attempted to coerce teachers to come in during Christmas break after a blizzard had closed schools prior to it, in violation of the teachers’ contract. 

In the other instance, the CEA ultimately filed a complaint with the state’s education department alleging that under Vallas, the school district was violating laws about School Governance Councils. Not unlike Chicago’s Local School Councils, they were designed to involve parents and teachers in decision-making. At the time, CEA president Sheila Cohen issued a statement that said Vallas had shown “flagrant disregard” for state laws.

“He just did things as a fait accompli, and never really engaged people in the field who knew what they were doing,” Peluchette said. “He would promote people into roles that I don’t think they were prepared to do, and it didn’t work out well. When the next superintendent, Fran Rabinowitz, came in, she had to completely put the district together.” 

According to the Hartford Courant, after Vallas left Bridgeport, Rabinowitz introduced a program that addressed students’ social and emotional needs, and suspensions and in-school arrests dropped, while test scores rose.

During Vallas’s tenure, Bridgeport got its first military/first-responder school. Peluchette said there was some pushback from teachers who “were not happy about a military-focused curriculum” at the time, but the school was opened regardless. The Bridgeport Military Academy (BMA) boasts a curriculum “focusing on Law Enforcement, Firefighting, Emergency Medical Services, Homeland Security, and Military Sciences.” It has no sports teams, athletics facilities or vocational workshops, and is housed in a building on the edge of the University of Bridgeport’s campus. A plan is in the works to merge it with an as-yet unbuilt high school.

In February 2013, the Connecticut Working Families Party, which had three members on the school board, held a protest calling on the board to not renew Vallas’s contract, and flew in Gloria Warner, a Chicago Public Schools teacher to speak. At a subsequent school board meeting, parents were divided between pro-Vallas and anti-Vallas camps. “It was just a shitshow,” Peluchette said.

Vallas was forced out of the Bridgeport school district in 2014 after a parent brought a lawsuit accusing him of not having acquired the proper state certification to be school superintendent. Vallas left the district before the suit was resolved. Former Bridgeport mayor Bill Finch, who brought Vallas in, called him “the best problem solver around” in online posts supporting his 2023 candidacy for Chicago mayor.

Pereira, the former Bridgeport school board member, disagrees. “I would strongly urge anybody who believes in good government, government of the people, honest, ethical, principled government, who’s not bought by the elite class, should absolutely never vote for Paul Vallas,” she said.

Matt G. Olson contributed reporting to this story from New Orleans.

Update March 29, 2023: This article previously misspelled Ashana Bigard’s last name; we regret the error.

Update April 2, 2023: This article previously incorrectly stated that the Recovery School District laid off thousands of teachers in New Orleans after Katrina; the New Orleans Parish school board did, not the RSD. We regret the error.

is the digital news editor for The TRiiBE.