img of Deputy Governor Martin Torres
Deputy Governor Martin Torres

Deputy Governor for Education Martin Torres has been a champion of education in Illinois for many years, previously serving as First Assistant Deputy Governor for Education in the Office of the Governor of Illinois and prior to that, as associate director of the Latino Policy Forum, where he guided the Forum’s legislative and administrative advocacy with a focus on education, immigrant integration, and the state budget.  At the Forum, he negotiated a significant increase in funding for bilingual education through the transition to an evidence-based funding model for K-12 schools,  served as an appointed member of the Illinois Early Learning Council, and partnered with lawmakers to pass legislation that increased transparency surrounding the demographic composition of state boards and commissions.

Learn more about Deputy Governor Martin Torres’ priorities for higher education in Illinois in this special interview:

First, congratulations on your recent appointment as Deputy Governor of Education. You are succeeding Jesse Ruiz who left the Governor’s Office in August and left a positive footprint on education in the state. As you take over this role, what do you hope to emulate and how will your leadership differ from that of the former Deputy Governor?

It is an honor to serve in this capacity. I share the Governor’s vision of making Illinois the best state in the nation to raise children. Like Jesse, I’m committed to working with stakeholders in the field and our partners in the General Assembly to strengthen our system of education from cradle-to-career. Jesse was singularly focused on improving the lives of students and I carry that same sense of urgency with me every day.

Those who have spent considerable time with Jesse know that he is an extraordinary story teller. More than once, our team meetings would veer off into a tangent about a life lesson that he learned while working in the steel factory during his youth. I’m a generation younger than Jesse, so I’m still building my catalogue of stories and lessons learned. Nonetheless, our leadership styles matter less than our ability to respond to the challenges of the day. In that regard, I aim to emulate his steady hand and sound decision-making.

In your first year in this role, what do you hope to accomplish as it relates to higher education?

The Governor’s focus on restoring fiscal stability and fostering economic growth have paid dividends for the state. Paying off bills, debt, and short-term borrowing have strengthened the state’s finances and resulted in credit upgrades for the first time in over 20 years. As a result, the state is in a position to leverage stronger than anticipated revenue to increase the state’s investments in students – particularly in higher education.

The Governor’s FY23 budget proposal would make landmark investments in college affordability and fulfill a promise to many Illinois families. Here are the highlights:

  • $122 million increase to the Monetary Award Program to a record high $601 million. This historic investment would allow the state to increase the size of the maximum grant award to 50 percent of the average cost of tuition and fees at a public university in Illinois and expand eligibility to people seeking short-term certificates at community colleges as well as those taking courses during the summer.
  • $68 million, or 5 percent, increase for public universities and community colleges above the FY22 appropriation. That enhanced funding level would continue into FY23 as well.
  • $25 million to expand the pipeline of healthcare workers, including nurses, EMTs, CNAs, and respiratory therapists.
  • $2.5 million increase to adult education and career and technical education programs for community colleges.
  • $2.3 million increase for minority teacher scholarships.
  • $230 million to eliminate the unfunded liabilities for the College Illinois! prepaid tuition program. This one-time payment will bring immediate relief and comfort to the nearly 25,000 contract holders who have faced uncertainty about the state’s ability to meet its fiscal obligation.

Given that it’s an election year and a condensed legislative session, many assume it will be a session light on substantive bills. What would you like to see happen during this legislative session for higher education?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to increase college affordability and keep Illinois students in-state. As a father of two elementary-age children, I share that vision! I hope that members of the General Assembly will join the Governor in focusing on these very issues by supporting and building upon his FY23 proposed budget.

With the uncertainty of the pandemic and an abbreviated calendar, I also expect to see fewer bills pass each chamber. However, my office and state agencies are already deeply engaged in negotiations on various bills traversing through the legislative process.

As the Governor’s appointee to the Commission on Equitable Public University Funding, a commission that kicked off in November and is charged with providing recommendations to the General Assembly in 2023 to equitably, stably, and more adequately fund public universities in the state, what do you hope the Commission will accomplish? What do you see as your role in helping the Commission reach that vision?

I’m thankful for the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford and Representative Carol Ammons, who advanced the bill that established this commission.

The framework utilized to allocate state funding to public universities doesn’t allow the state to leverage its resources in a manner that meaningfully focuses on equity and recognizes the unique circumstances of each public institution. I’m confident that the commission will meet its statutory obligations and issue recommendations that are actionable and achievable.

I serve as one of four co-chairs on the commission. In that capacity, I’m focused on making sure that each meeting individually and collectively over time positions commission members to make informed recommendations to the state. We have an opportunity to reshape how public higher education is financed and we cannot let the next generation of students down.

As a result of longstanding and deep-rooted systemic inequities across myriad systems and sectors, Illinois, like many states across the country, must reckon with staggering racial and socioeconomic college completion disparities. Public universities in Illinois graduate Black students at a rate of 38% and 52% of Latinx students, compared to 70% of White students. Illinois community colleges graduate 14% of Black students, 25% of Latinx students, and 38% of White students. Given your experience in various fields of education and your history of fighting to advance racial equity, what should institutions and policymakers be prioritizing so that all students can realize the promise of higher education?

Illinois public universities and community colleges can and must do better. The state’s responsibility is to provide public institutions with the resources necessary to fulfill their mission and the state’s moral and economic objectives. Unfortunately, the state has not always held up its end of the bargain and the prior governor’s failure to pass a budget during much of his tenure in office weakened our institutions and their reputations with Illinois students and their families.

The financial health of our institutions is recovering and so is the outlook among Illinois families. However, the bottom line remains that each our public institutions must do more to recruit, retain, and graduate Black, Latino, and low-income students. The Illinois Board of Higher Education is advancing a bill this year to require post-secondary institutions to establish equity plans. That intentional, public commitment to equity by each institution is important to the state and something that we can build upon.

Read more from our February 2022 PCC Policy Quarterly now.