The City of Chicago is gearing up to enforce its Chicago Public Schools preference policy, which would give CPS graduates preferential standing among other firefighter applicants, providing an unfair advantage above students enrolled in private or religious schools. While Mayor Rahm Emanuel apparently seeks to encourage more opportunity for CPS high school graduates to serve in the Chicago Fire Department, it seems like a shortsighted approach to creating educational stability and opportunities for Chicago’s youth.

With dwindling poll numbers as it relates to his education policies, it appears the mayor yet again has not given much thought towards how to empower Chicago’s youth.

I suggest a real and meaningful incentive plan that goes beyond the mayor’s proposal.

Instead of offering CPS high school graduates special treatment, the mayor should work toward giving students the educational resources they need to become successful firefighters. CPS should turn the current Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy after-school program into an in-school Career and Technical Education program of study. Not only would this provide students with a foundation in fire science and all aspects of firefighting, but it will also motivate students to stay in school, as studies show that CTE programs have higher graduation rates than non-CTE programs. In fact, student retention in CPS’ CTE program in 2013 was 83 percent and the graduation rate of CTE students was an astounding 99 percent.

A citywide mentoring plan might include:

  • A course in the introduction to fire science to be taught in CPS high schools; such a curriculum is readily available from local community colleges and might include dual credit components;
  • An internship program where students could visit local firehouses, see the nature of firefighting and also develop important skills;
  • Participation in a prep course designed to assist all students, including private school students who are Chicago residents, in doing well on the exam;
  • Volunteer activities aimed at fire prevention in the community and public awareness.

It may appear at first glance that the CPS preference policy is neutral toward religion and race. But even a cursory examination reveals insidious religious and racial discrimination. A distinction is drawn between city residents who graduate from a CPS high school and those city residents attending a private school. In actual practice, the overwhelming majority of students attending private high schools in Chicago are enrolled in parochial schools, especially — but not limited to — those operated by the Archdiocese of Chicago. That large group of students is denied equal treatment under the mayor’s plan for one reason — they attend religious schools. This is a burden upon the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Again, while the policy does not refer to religious discrimination, its de facto result is the clear disparate negative treatment of students choosing a religious school option. It is odd that in an area of society with perhaps the most notorious history of de facto discrimination (i.e., the education of our children), Mayor Emanuel should propose resurrection of a policy long rejected. At a time when there is particular sensitivity to efforts to impose burdens upon religious freedom, why would the City of Chicago elect to adopt such a discriminatory policy offensive to a large number of Chicagoans?

It also is likely that Emanuel’s plan results in racially disparate treatment as well. While this memorandum does not purport to have conducted a full study on the racial makeup of the private schools in Chicago, it does appear quite reasonable to suggest that those attending private schools are predominately classified as “Caucasian” for racial statistics purposes. This point merits further study to ensure that the plan does not, in addition to discriminating based on religion, also do so based on race.

The mayor’s policy should be rejected for what it really is — a meaningless stunt that does nothing whatsoever to raise CPS graduation rates and has zero impact on the quality of public safety in Chicago. It does, however, foster religious and racial divisiveness and invites significant legal challenges that could cost taxpayers millions.