Updated: August 30, 2014 6:13AM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel barely caused a ripple of reaction two years ago when he announced Chicago Public School graduates would be given a leg up when applying for city jobs.
But now that the city is preparing to take applications for firefighters for the first time in a decade, Emanuel’s “CPS preference” policy is sparking an outcry from some city residents who say it discriminates against graduates of Catholic and other private schools.
Several elected officials from the city’s Northwest and Southwest sides tell me the issue has heated up in the last two weeks after the city posted its job announcement for the forthcoming firefighters exam.
“People have been really upset,” said Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th), a firefighter whose Northwest Side ward has historically been home to many city workers.
Sposato said lifelong residents of the city are asking him why they are being penalized for exercising their religious beliefs by sending their children to Catholic schools.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than that, with the Chicago Public Schools being overwhelmingly composed of minority students and with the Fire Department being a city agency where minorities have traditionally had difficulty getting hired.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) said those who are complaining “have been at an advantage for more than 100 years” in getting into the Fire Department, which he called “the whitest department in the city of Chicago.”
Brookins and Ald. Danny Solis (25th) two years ago co-sponsored a resolution praising the mayor’s CPS hiring preference policy and said he’s never heard anyone criticize it.
”We thought you’d get a different mix of folks who have traditionally been left out of the Fire Department,” said Brookins, who called the CPS preference a “race neutral” means to get more minorities into the department.
The issue could be politically ticklish for Emanuel, who said he was trying to give CPS students an incentive to stay in school and get a diploma when he announced in September 2012 that the city would require at least 20 percent of the candidates referred by the city’s Department of Human Resources for designated job openings to be graduates of CPS high schools.
Please note: that’s not the same as saying they’ll hire 20 percent CPS grads, only that 20 percent of applicants who advance to the final stages for hiring consideration must be CPS grads.
Still, it’s bound to jump some individuals ahead of others in what many will perceive as a back-door affirmative action effort.
Sen. William Cunningham, D-Chicago, whose state legislative district includes neighborhoods favored by firefighters, said he understands the frustration he’s hearing even if he suspects the impact of the preference is being overstated.
“If you raise your family in the city and don’t send your kids to public schools, you watch more than half your property taxes go to a government service you never use,” Cunningham said.
“Obviously, enrolling your child in a Catholic or other private school is a choice no one is forced to make, and I think most Chicago parents who do so begrudgingly accept that reality. But you like to think it’s a choice that won’t cost your kid a job some day,” he added.
Sposato said he believes the city is opening itself up to a lawsuit based on “religious freedom” and has heard from firefighters interested in bringing one. None were willing to talk about it on the record with me. Firefighters Local 2 President Tom Ryan Jr. did not return my calls.
“I don’t have a problem with giving Chicago kids a leg up,” Sposato said, but argued the city shouldn’t be favoring public school over private school graduates.
Brookins said he still thinks it’s a good idea.
CPS students “need a preference in something,” he said, pointing to the multi-generational family legacies in the Fire Department.
“How were they getting on the job?” Brookins said, suggesting a different sort of hiring preference was once the norm.
However well-intentioned the mayor’s policy may be, I’m not sure that pitting public versus private school students is a valid basis for picking a job applicant pool.