Paul Vallas, an Energetic Education Leader, May Be the Next Mayor of Chicago

Windy City could find itself subject to “The Vallas Effect”
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas smiles as he speaks at his election night event in Chicago, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas smiles as he speaks at his election night event in Chicago, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. Mayor Lori Lightfoot conceded defeat Tuesday night, ending her efforts for a second term and setting the stage for Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson to run against former Chicago Public Schools CEO Vallas for Chicago mayor.

The top votegetter in this week’s election for mayor of Chicago was Paul Vallas, who has run public school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conn. Under Chicago’s rules, Vallas faces an April 4 final-round election against the runner-up, Brandon Johnson.

Education Next profiled Vallas in 2009, in an article headlined “The Vallas Effect.” Dale Mezzacappa wrote: “Of the cadre of non-educators—business leaders, military men, government officials, lawyers—who have been called on to transform large urban school districts in recent years, Paul Vallas has been at it the longest and, in the minds of many, is the one with the best track record.”

The article went on: “Depending on whom you talk to, Paul Vallas is either a loose cannon or a genius; he is, in fact, a combination of the two. His energy level is boundless, his temper legendary, his gangly charm equally so. His style of leadership, the ‘Vallas treatment,’ is by now well established. Do things big, do them fast, and do them all at once.”

Vallas also was the subject of an article in the Winter 2003 issue of Education Next. Headlined, “Political Educator,” the article, by Alexander Russo, observed, “Perhaps the most prominent big-city superintendent in the nation, Vallas is widely credited with having turned around the Chicago school system.”

The article continued, “As CEO of the Chicago schools, Vallas combined Rudy Giuliani’s gruff exterior and stunning self-confidence with a Bill Clinton-like mastery of policy minutiae and John McCain’s open door to a fawning, half-intimidated press. He held regular press conferences, called back reporters at all hours of the night, and spoke in commanding detail about specific schools and neighborhoods. In fear as much as in admiration, educators worked day and night to please him, to find ways to get done the things that he wanted. The result was a stream of positive press coverage, growing public confidence in the schools, and renewed energy within the school system.”

If Vallas prevails on April 4, the city of Chicago may get a dose of the Vallas effect, and Vallas will have achieved the relatively rare political feat of climbing the ladder from school superintendent to big-city mayor. Whether he would be able to lead a turnaround for the city similar to that for which he is known for in school districts will be an interesting story. It will also be, potentially, a test of whether the current problems of Northern cities are intractable or, instead, subject to improvement with the right leadership.

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