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Garcia unveils education plan, vows to cut back testing

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia vowed Thursday to reduce class size at the Chicago Public Schools, hold standardized tests to the “barest legal minimum,” declare a moratorium on charter openings and school closings – and revisit the mayor’s controversial proposal to build another selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side.

One week after calling an elected school board a “Constitutional right,” Garcia fleshed out the rest of his education agenda, apparently convinced that school issues and the furor over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 50 school closings could decide the Feb. 24 election.

The cornerstone of Garcia’s plan—and the change that won’t cost the cash-strapped school system a dime—is the decision to minimize, what he called the “plethora of high-stakes, standardized tests” that CPS uses to “falsely judge” schools, students and teachers.

“When it comes to standardized, high-stakes testing, our kids are over-tested and under-educated,” said Garcia, whose wife was a teacher’s assistant in special education for CPS.

Garcia argued that “grade level” standards in reading and math that vary from place-to-place are “seriously flawed.”

“Worse yet is reinforcement of the notion that testing well in one or two subjects—important as reading and math may be—is any real measurement of genuine education,” he said.

“Making everything dependent on test scores in two subjects simply builds in larger failures. Ultimately it causes teachers, schools and entire systems to narrow educational goals and teach to the tests—or cheat, which we’ve seen recently around the country and in Chicago in past years.”

If elected mayor, Garcia said he would also declare a moratorium on charter schools that have drained valuable resources and students from Chicago Public Schools.

“CPS slashed the budget and closed 50 schools, claiming closures will reduce the $1 billion debt. However, they have not provided any proof of savings. And here’s Alice-in-Wonderland part: Mad Hatter Emanuel now wants to open 22 new charters, some in areas where he closed schools because of ‘underutilization.’ These will cost Chicagoans $225 million over the next decade,” Garcia said.

Without saying how he would find the money, Garcia said he also wants to: halt school closings; reduce class sizes now among the highest in the state; open smaller schools like the one he championed in Little Village; expand dual language programs in all communities; and “expand public education to include pre-kindergarten and even earlier.”

Pressed on how he would pay for smaller class sizes, Garcia said he’s studying school finances and will unveil specifics next month.

Garcia held the news conference at Dyett High School in Bronzeville—and for good reason.

He used the opportunity to embrace the neigborhood’s plan to turn the school that has been on the chopping block for years into the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

Emanuel’s handpicked school team recently reversed course and announced that Dyett would remain open. But instead of adopting the community plan, CPS is issuing a request-for-proposals from all comers.

“I believe there is a difference between making hard choices and being hard-headed,” Garcia said Thursday.

Garcia likened the mayor’s decision to ignore the community plan for Dyett to his giveaway of 17 acres of precious lakefront parkland to movie mogul George Lucas to build a new interactive museum.

“You fly into Chicago from Hollywood. You give the mayor a lot of money and say, ‘I would like to build a museum for Darth Vader.’” City Hall says, ‘I like it. Here’s some of our lakefront. We’ll lease it to you for a $1. The mayor calls it ‘bold,’ ” Garcia said.

“If you don’t live in Hollywood—if you have to take the bus downtown from Bronzeville—[but] still, you bring a plan supported by thousands of people to improve your community and save your high school. You bring a plan backed by the best institutions. City Hall says, ‘You don’t know what’s best for your own kids. You’re not an expert. You don’t understand your own neighborhood.’ ”

During a follow-up interview Thursday, Garcia vowed to revisit Emanuel’s controversial decision to build a $60 selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side initially named after President Barack Obama before the mayor dropped the name.

Garcia acknowledged that a $17 million TIF expansion planned for nearby Walter Payton College Prep may be too far along to reverse.

But he said, “The Obama school was a series of errors tied directly to ambition and electoral calculations. I’d take a hard look at that. Priorities have not been in line with desires. That may not be the best option. I would strive for greater equity across the city in educational resources.”