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COLUMN: Chuck Sweeny
Senate hopeful says train kids for decent jobs

In an expanding list of U.S. Senate wannabes, one candidate has hands-on experience in the field people say they care most about ? education.

He?s Gery Chico, president of the Chicago Board of Education from 1995 through 2001. Chico, a Democrat, was Mayor Richard M. Daley?s chief of staff when Hizzoner tapped him to reform Chicago?s public schools, which were doing a terrible job educating 400,000 students.

Chico hired reformist firebrand Paul Vallas to run the operation, and together they hit the recalcitrant school bureaucracy like a magnitude-8.0 earthquake. Today, the city?s schools still have a lot of improving to do, but at least nobody calls them the worst in the country anymore.

?When I took over in 1995, the schools were a disaster financially, the teachers? contract had just expired, buildings were in disrepair and student performance was abysmal,? said Chico in a phone interview.

?Today, test scores are rising, we?ve spent $3 billion on new buildings and repairs, we?ve had eight years of labor peace and eight balanced budgets,? Chico said.

CHICO, A LAWYER by trade, says he doesn?t waste a lot of time talking about school problems. Instead, he?s promoting solutions that go beyond the often insular world of public education.

Chico knows the federal government plays only a supporting role in public education, but he says it?s shirking its responsibility.

?When special education began, the feds said they?d pay 40 percent of the cost. They?ve never paid more than 18 percent, and this has put a lot of pressure on school districts. The government should pay what it agreed to pay, and that?s 40 percent,? Chico said.

To get more and better teachers, Chico would have the federal government subsidize tuition, up to $20,000, for students who agree to teach.

Chico also agreed with me that high school curriculums are often far removed from the realities of the modern marketplace. Why, I wondered, do we emphasize a college-bound program when the majority of students don?t go to college?

?Yes, the majority of kids are not going to college, and we owe it to them to give them the skills necessary to go out and get a decent job, and we?re not doing it,? he said.

?In Chicago, we brought in companies like Ford to help us design the (technical education) space at the new Simeon High School on the south side. We didn?t want to have a dead-end training program.?

BUT WHAT GOOD is world-class training when manufacturing and engineering jobs are being shipped to foreign shores by the container-load?

?I refuse to accept the premise that we can let all the manufacturing jobs go overseas and we?ll sustain ourselves on service-sector jobs. That?s a formula for disaster,? Chico said.

As a senator, he said he?d use tax incentives and trade policies to shore up and rebuild the manufacturing economy.

Chico wants the United States to ?adopt the concept of an international minimum wage? to make offshore production less lucrative for U.S. firms and to raise the living standard worldwide.

?I don?t have all the answers, but I start with the premise that the U.S. can?t survive as a service-sector economy,? Chico said.