A preference for CPS grads in city hiring helps more than it hurts


August 14, 2014 6:30PM

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Updated: September 16, 2014 6:29AM

Chicagoans are good at lamenting the sorry state of affairs in some of our neighborhoods — the violence, the high unemployment, the weak schools.

We don’t doubt anybody’s sincerity.

But when it comes to taking steps, even modest ones, that might make a difference, that’s when resistance flares.

Chicago must fight that impulse.

The Emanuel administration in Sept. 2012 instituted a new policy meant to give Chicago Public Schools graduates, many of whom come from those struggling neighborhoods, a slight advantage when applying for city jobs. When the city undertakes large-scale hiring, as with police officers or firefighters, 20 percent of the candidates referred for a job (applicants, not hires) are to be CPS grads.

The 20 percent policy has already been applied several times without any major complaints, including to police applicants in May. But with a firefighters exam looming in December, the first since 2006, the pushback has begun in earnest. A group of firefighters is contemplating a lawsuit to challenge the hiring policy, arguing it’s unfair to city residents who go to parochial or private schools — Chicagoans who support the public schools with their tax dollars and also commit to city living. This is the first firefighters exam since 2006.

We get the firefighters’ beef, and it’s not without merit. But the modest potential harm caused by this policy is outweighed by the potential for good.

Many parents opt for private schools, including firefighters, at great personal sacrifice, and contribute greatly to building Chicago’s vibrant communities. Why should they be put at a disadvantage?

First off, we’re not convinced it’s a major disadvantage. The city tells us that 38 percent of the applicants so far for the firefighters exam are CPS grads. That percentage, though not final, suggests that the number of test-takers who pass the exam (84 percent passed in 2006) and make it onto a randomized eligibility list might well approach 20 percent anyway.

In May, the police department sought 2,000 candidates, including 400 that were CPS grads. The original testing pool included 43 percent CPS grads. Of those 2,000 randomized names, 183 were CPS grads, which meant the city had to pull another 217 CPS grads from deeper on the list. The bypassed non-CPS grads moved to the top of the list.

Yes, some firefighters also could be bumped, giving CPS grads an advantage. But if that preference motivates more kids to stay in school through graduation, or helps propel more kids from poor families into the middle class, then it’s worth it.

The CPS advantage can also help diversify a disproportionately white fire department, a long-time but unrealized goal. Many parochial and private school grads are from minority groups, of course, but the percentages are significantly higher in CPS.

The city is to blame for some measure of the opposition. Three aldermen representing wards with high concentrations of firefighters have been seeking details from the city on this new policy — information they can share with their angry constituents — but weren’t able to get a meeting until the end of August, Ald. Matt O’Shea (19) tells us. That 38 percent applicant figure was news to him.

Mayor Emanuel was right to push this policy. It sends the message that our city does not just lament — we take action.

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