Flight to suburbs? Not from CPS

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Among educators in Chicago, conventional wisdom maintains that teachers in city schools routinely flee to jobs in the suburbs, lured by lower housing costs and, in high schools, higher salaries.

But in fact, less than one percent of CPS teachers quit each year to take jobs elsewhere in Cook County or the five collar counties, according to a Catalyst analysis of Illinois State Board of Education data from 1999 through 2003. That amounts to approximately 100 to 200 teachers per year during that period.

“One percent seems low. That is really strange,” remarks Ted Dallas, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Teachers who leave for nearby suburbs are only a fraction of those who resign each year from CPS.

Overall, Chicago lost about 10 percent of its teachers for reasons other than retirement between 2000 and 2003, the latest years for which complete data were available. (CPS and the state do not track specifics regarding why teachers quit.)

And experienced CPS teachers were much less likely to leave for the suburbs. Two-thirds of teachers who accepted new jobs in 2001or 2002 had five years of experience or less. And more than half of all those who left took a pay cut.

Teachers looking to transfer outside Chicago face a host of barriers.

For one, the competition can be fierce. Oak Park Elementary District receives about 700 applications for 30 to 35 open positions each year, according to its human resources department. And last year, Glencoe School District had 1,500 applications for 14 positions, the superintendent’s office reports.

Another disincentive is the cap many suburban districts put on the number of years of experience they will award to incoming teachers. Arlington Heights Township High School District caps credit for experience at six years, while Naperville Community Unit School District caps credit at 15 years.

In addition, a stagnant economy has also meant fewer suburban openings. Suburban districts began a hiring slowdown in 2002, according to Ed-Red, a consortium of 100 districts in the Chicago suburbs. That year, the number of teachers leaving Chicago for the nearby suburbs dropped from 200 to 100, according to state data.

‘An urban teacher’

Three teachers from one troubled North Side school that closed this summer, Truth Elementary, say they want to stay in CPS. And their reasons may well hold true for other teachers across the city.

One teacher, a veteran who once taught in the suburbs, says she now prefers city living, “and I’m not commuting back and forth.” Another, a native Chicagoan, describes herself as “an urban teacher” and says the suburbs are unfamiliar territory. And one who grew up in the suburbs prefers to work with disadvantaged kids in the city because, “I feel I have a bigger impact.”

CPS teachers who are frustrated with working conditions are more likely to switch schools than take suburban jobs, some observers say. “I don’t hear so much about, ‘The system is no good,'” reports Barbara Radner of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. “I hear, ‘I’ve got to get out of this building.'”

Some teachers may be so dissatisfied that they choose to leave teaching altogether, suggests Earl Kelly Prince, a former CTU field representative who recently ran unsuccessfully for union president. “I meet a lot of people who are former teachers, and I don’t mean old people.”

A 2003 CTU survey of teachers who resigned between 1991 and 2002 found that 55 percent had left teaching. Their top three complaints: poor student behavior, insufficient support from principals, and lack of parental involvement.

Inadequate pay ranked only 6th. The survey did not specifically ask teachers whether job dissatisfaction was their primary reason for leaving. (For more on the CTU survey, see ‘More new teachers leaving CPS’ in the Nov. 2003 issue of Catalyst.)

One teacher who left CPS in 2001 for a lower-paying job in the suburbs blames what she describes as an inhospitable school climate at her school on the Far South Side.

“No one wanted to mentor me,” she recalls. “I was swapped around from one teacher to the next.”Now she works in Glendale Heights, where she earns $5,000 less but feels supported by her colleagues. “It’s worth the pay cut.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.