Turning to a non-educator with deep Chicago ties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named former Chicago schools official and a current San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be the first permanent Latino leader in the school district’s history, according to the mayor. Lightfoot called Martinez an “historic” choice for a school district that is now half Latino. Martinez referred to himself as an “immigrant kid.”
The announcement took place Wednesday morning at Benito Juarez High School in the Pilsen neighborhood. Martinez graduated from Juarez and he credited CPS teachers for seeing “something in me that I couldn’t see myself.”
The mayor said he has 28 nieces and nephews attending CPS. He was joined by several family members at the announcement. He also has two children, ages 7 and 11.
“I know what’s possible for our children,” said Martinez, the eldest of 12 siblings. “I know that our children can reach their full potential. And we can, all of us united, we can achieve that. We can make Chicago the best district in the country, we can not only build on that success, but we can make sure that every child has that access. … and that is what I’m excited about, that is what motivates me.”
Martinez said he expects to begin Sept. 29. His appointment requires approval of the Chicago Board of Education.
Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan. He is currently superintendent of San Antonio Independent School District, one of the 17 school districts in San Antonio, since 2015. The district has 48,000 students. In San Antonio, he has been lauded for increasing graduation rates and college-going rates, including helping more of the district’s mostly low-income students win scholarships. Under his leadership, the state also improved its state accountability grade and was cited as the state’s fastest improving large district and having the highest achievement gains of any district.
Martinez is an accountant who has been called “analytics heavy.” And, in San Antonio, he has expanded charter schools as well as partnered with private organizations to take over failing schools. These ideas have been popular in Chicago, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years.
The Chicago Teachers Union seized on that history in San Antonio and in Chicago, saying in statement that “many of the failed strategies that our new CEO is accustomed to no longer exist in Chicago, as the experiments of education reform and privatization have proven to be a failure. Equity, justice and democracy, and student, parent and educator voice, are now at the forefront.”
Martinez has never taught or run a school as a principal. And, thus in choosing him, Lightfoot is rejecting the input of parents and others who said they wanted someone with a strong instructional background with “boots on the ground” experience. Janice Jackson, who stepped down as CEO in June, was the first teacher and principal to lead the school district in about 20 years. The mayor and school board touted the search process as CPS’ most inclusive in recent history.
The incoming CPS CEO also does not have a good relationship with the teachers union in San Antonio. Yet it will be incumbent on him to find a way to work with the powerful and somewhat cantankerous CTU.
Martinez will replace interim CEO Jose Torres, who began this summer after Jackson left after more than three years on the job. Looking ahead, he has a long and challenging to-do list, including navigating the surging pandemic while trying to maintain in-person learning, negotiating a deal on COVID-19 safety protocols with the teachers union and staffing up a deeply depleted staff at CPS’ headquarters that runs many of the school district’s core programs.
The union said that with a long list of issues related to the pandemic confronting him, including contact tracing delays, busing problems and a delay in COVID-19 testing, “Mr. Martinez has a tall task ahead of him from day one.”
The incoming CEO was asked Wednesday about several of the thorny issues he’ll face, including becoming the CEO as CPS transitions to an elected school board, his views on police in schools and COVID-19 safety protections. He said as a parent of two children ineligible to be vaccinated, he “understands the fears … I look forward to being the champion the champion in the city for vaccinations.”
A Chicago story
Martinez brings a life story that is similar to that of many Chicago students. He came to Chicago at the age of five from Aguascalientes, Mexico, and then became a CPS student.
Martinez is bilingual, as are nearly 20% of the students in Chicago’s public schools. At last count, Latino students made up 47% of the school district’s student population.
Peter Cunningham, a communications advisor who worked as a spokesman for CPS and the Department of Education under Duncan, remembers Martinez as someone who took his work “very seriously.”
Cunningham notes that Martinez will walk in knowing some of the ins and outs of the CPS budget, which is an asset. He does not see Martinez as someone who holds firm to a pro-charter school or anti-charter school ideology.
“He doesn’t look to escalate around some of the kind of contentious issues that people seem to relish in this space,” Cunningham said. “He just wants to get the work done. He’s very, very focused on students and outcomes.”
But in San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools. This immediately drew the ire of the teachers’ union, as well some community members.
Martinez is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy training program. Critics say the Broad Academy promotes school leaders who use corporate-management techniques and that they work to limit teachers’ job protections and the involvement of parents in decision-making. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first two picks to run CPS were Broad graduates, including Barbara Byrd-Bennett who was convicted in a kick-back scheme.
Martinez has brought the Broad philosophy to San Antonio, said Alejandra Lopez, president of the local teachers union, the San Antonio Alliance. Lopez was a teacher at one of the elementary schools taken over by a private operator.
Lopez said she sees the Broad Academy as anti-union and that is how she sees Martinez.
“I would say he’s been very challenging to try to work with because of his very top-down approach when it comes to overseeing the school district,” Lopez said.
Lopez said Martinez also leans too much on standardized test scores, which she said do not look at a whole student and what they are learning. During the pandemic, she said parents felt pressured to bring children who were learning remotely to schools to take the tests.
Before coming to San Antonio, Martinez led the school district in Washoe County, Nev., which includes Reno. His tenure in Washoe was cut short after he was accused of overstating his accounting credentials. Those accusations were later proved unfounded, but only after he took a buyout.
Before being selected for the Chicago job, Martinez was a finalist for the superintendent jobs in Boston and Philadelphia.