Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot Trying to Return Chicago to the Arne Duncan Era?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools, and everybody agrees he faces myriad challenges. He is Pedro Martinez, currently the school superintendent of the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, someone who grew up among 11 siblings in Chicago and was himself educated in the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez is also the board chairman of Chiefs for Change, the corporate-reformer education leadership organization spun off from Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (Foundation for Excellence in Education).

For WBEZ, Chicago’s best education reporter, Sarah Karp introduces Pedro Martinez: “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… Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan… 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… Martinez has never taught or run a school as 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… 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.”

The past year has been tense for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and for Chicago’s teachers. There has been ongoing disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lightfoot about what constitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, safe reopening in a school district filled with old buildings, but current tensions are overlaid upon a long history of conflict between the mayor and the teachers union under the mayoral governance and mayoral appointed school boards the Illinois legislature established back in 1995. Last April (2021), it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

Then in July, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that that will phase in a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027: “Until now, Chicago Public Schools was the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor.  But under the new legislation, the Chicago Board of Education will transition to a hybrid board of elected and appointed members before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.”

My clipping file tracks problems with mayoral governance and  corporate, test-based school accountability in Chicago way back into the mid-1990s, with the disempowerment of Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers, and the community into the life of the neighborhood schools. In 1995, the Illinois legislature established mayoral governance of Chicago’s schools, gave the mayor the power to appoint the school board, and denied the Chicago Teachers Union the bargaining rights guaranteed to other teachers union locals.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment under school CEO Paul Vallas, that sought—under Arne Duncan’s leadership—to open a mass of new charter schools to replace neighborhood public schools deemed “failing.”  Later Arne Duncan replaced Vallas as CEO.

Chicago has been the centerpiece of an experiment with an education governance plan called “portfolio school reform” in which the administration manages traditional and charter schools as though the district is a business portfolio—investing in the best schools and shuttering the so called “failures.”  And the problems were exacerbated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with “student-based budgeting.” When students left for a charter school, the public school which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the school declined.  A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral appointed board closed nearly 50 public schools, with African American children making up 88 percent of the students affected.

In a press release last week, the Chicago Teachers Union expressed understandable concerns about Martinez’s ties to these corporate, test-based accountability initiatives which have, over time, disrupted neighborhoods and failed to turn around the huge school district as promised: “Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers, and librarians. Families, students, and community organizations are empowered leaders now, and have rejected the charter proliferation, the mass firing of Black female teachers, weakened worker protections, and top-down decision-making that were hallmarks of his time under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan.  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. Despite having no classroom or in-school experience, Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust, and meet high expectations.”

Karp reports: “In San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools.”

But in its press release, Chiefs for Change brags that Martinez has a strong record of improving public education for students in San Antonio: “During Martinez’s tenure, the number of… students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall… In addition, San Antonio Independent School District has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school… San Antonio Independent School District has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived… and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all San Antonio Independent School District schools.”

What is clear is that Martinez faces enormous challenges posed by years of state policy and mayoral appointed school administrators who have alienated the district’s teachers and imposed unpopular experiments with school privatization and school closure which have undermined neighborhoods.

Because much has changed in Chicago since the time when Martinez worked for Arne Duncan as the school district’s chief financial officer, we must hope Martinez will take to heart the words of University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which examines the widespread 2013 neighborhood public school closures in Chicago:  “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)