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Give CPS teachers the right to live outside Chicago

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates (center) speaks at a press conference alongside CTU President Jesse Sharkey (right). | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates (center) speaks at a press conference on teacher contract demands with CTU President Jesse Sharkey (right). | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers’ Union recently released a draft contract chock-full of demands: smaller class sizes, salary increases, and more affordable benefits. But one “ask” that’s missing is for a right that educators in every other large urban school district in America enjoy — the right to live outside the city.

Why has CPS held on to its residency requirement since 1996? There’s the belief that teachers who live in Chicago will have more stake in their schools and communities, be more involved in school activities and be less likely to miss work or show up late. CPS also claims that schools benefit financially because educators spend their money in the city — money that eventually trickles down to schools.

Other cities, including Philadelphia and Milwaukee, had residency policies for decades but have rescinded them. Now, CPS is the only one of the 50 largest districts in our nation that requires residency for its educators. However, there’s a list of unfair exceptions.

OPINION

One exception allows new hires in special-needs positions to apply for a 3-year renewable waiver. In June 2018, CPS designated over 20 positions as special needs, including science, math, foreign language, physical education, and special education teachers. In high schools, many more positions can be on new-hire waivers than not. Veteran teachers who move into a “high-needs” job, however, can’t apply for a waiver. 

There’s also a new exemption for incoming administrators, who can restore a waiver if they once held one. Charter school teachers are exempt too, and some charter schools even advertise that exemption to attract teachers. In the past, residency waivers have been given to high-profile top officials, such as Tim Cawley, a former chief administrative officer who lived on the North Shore.

In other words, some CPS employees have the right to live where they want, and others do not.

Meanwhile, it’s just not true that a residency policy helps employees be more invested in their schools, more empathetic to students and have better attendance. As a high school teacher for the last 15 years, I’ve worked with both Chicago residents and those living outside the city. Empathy, involvement, and attendance do not correspond to where teachers live — they correspond to who teachers are as people and professionals.

When I think back to my first school, Corliss High School, many veteran teachers lived in the suburbs and were grandfathered in as exemptions. Three highly regarded, award-winning African-American teachers lived in Gary, Indiana; Oak Lawn; and Country Club Hills. In many ways, these places were more similar to Corliss’ South Side neighborhood than the city neighborhoods where other colleagues lived, like LakeView or Lincoln Park. These teachers grew up in Chicago but later moved outside the city to forge a different life for their families.

At my current school, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, I see a different story. Teachers who have left for the suburbs and would have commuted to the city if they had the option, but who had to leave their job instead.

Critics might see this contract request as wrong-headed, with Chicago facing another year of losing residents. But Chicago also has a teacher shortage — 43 percent of over 2,000 unfilled teaching jobs in Illinois are in CPS — that’s made worse by the policy.

CPS wants to hire more teachers of color, but it’s limiting the applicant pool because so many African-Americans are leaving the city. School districts nearby boast a higher percentage of African-American educators than CPS, even though CPS offers better pay and benefits that should be a selling point. According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s Report Card, 21% of CPS educators are African-American, compared to 35% of educators in Rich Township, just 20 minutes away. In the Gary, Indiana Community Schools, 74% of educators are African-American, according to the Indiana Department of Education’s website.

When Philadelphia eliminated its residency requirement, teacher vacancies fell. In Milwaukee, teacher applications increased from around 6,000 to 30,000 when the residency requirement ended.  

It is high time for CPS to give its educators the right to live where they choose, and its students the potential benefit of a larger pool of applicants.

Gina Caneva is a teacher-librarian at Lindblom Math and Science Academy and is National Board Certified.  Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

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