City Districts Lifting Rules On Residency

By Jeff Archer — January 16, 2002 6 min read
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Kelly Page had racked up 10 years of teaching experience when the competing demands of family and work tore her from the Milwaukee public schools.

Her job teaching science to a diverse group of needy middle school students still satisfied the sense of calling that first drew her to the city. But with a growing family of her own, she yearned for a house on a quiet street and a back yard with room enough for a jungle gym and a dog.

With Milwaukee’s rule requiring teachers to live within the city, however, Ms. Page says she couldn’t have it both ways. So she and her husband—who also taught in the 103,000- student district—took new assignments in Delafield, Wis., an affluent suburb where they bought a home last year.

“We’re glad that we made the move for our family,” Ms. Page said, “but we still have that tug on our heartstrings.”

The Pages haven’t been the only ones questioning residency rules for teachers lately. Similar rules were abolished last year for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Providence, R.I. And the Chicago district announced just last month that it was lifting its residency requirement for those who teach subjects for which there is a dearth of educators, such as mathematics and science.

Residency rules still have their proponents among some school and city leaders, but with urban districts struggling to recruit enough qualified teachers, many forecast the extinction of such dictates. Indeed, national education groups only know of a handful of urban school systems—Milwaukee among them—that still require all new teachers to live within city limits. Even in those districts, pressure is mounting to change the policies.

“I’m still a residency supporter, but the numbers just don’t add up,” said Jack Coyle, a member of the school board in Buffalo, N.Y., where the 47,000-student system’s residency rule is being reconsidered. “If someone said, ‘Jack, we could fill these vacancies without getting rid of the requirement,’ I’d do it.”

Opening Doors

Education observers say residency requirements were more common in the 1970s and 1980s, when many cities faced a wave of middle-class flight. While helping to shore up the local tax base, the thinking went, residency rules also ensured that educators and students shared a strong sense of community. Often, another aim was to help make sure that the demographics of the local teaching force more closely matched that of the city as a whole.

But at a time when the law of supply and demand puts recruiters at a disadvantage, the mandates have become a serious liability, according to Peter Bendt, who recruits teaching candidates for the 200,000-student Philadelphia district.

“I have been in front of groups with 40 or 50 people, and I’m talking to them about the glories of working in Philadelphia, and the career opportunities here, and all the great things people are doing here,” he said. “And a hand will go up, and someone will say, ‘Do you really have to live in Philadelphia?’ And I say yes, and you lose 35 percent of them.”

As has been the case elsewhere, some local elected officials in Philadelphia were long reluctant to change the rule. Instead, the Pennsylvania legislature last spring reversed the state law that allowed both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to make residency a condition of employment for its teachers.

Recruitment concerns also were what drove the 432,000-student Chicago district to alter its requirement. Last month, the city’s school board voted unanimously to institute waivers for teachers with specialties for which the district is experiencing a shortage.

Arne Duncan, the district’s chief executive officer, said he plans an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at the surrounding suburbs.

“We’re going to let them know that this is a brand-new opportunity that hasn’t existed for years and years in Chicago,” he said.

But Chicago union leaders argue that the change isn’t enough. Although Mr. Duncan says the one-year waivers would be renewed automatically for any teacher in a high-need area, a teacher would lose her exemption if there were no longer a shortage in her subject specialty.

“It’s a modification that I don’t think will be an incentive to get people from outside the city to come in and work in these shortage areas,” said Deborah Lynch, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

The union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, supports a bill, set to be introduced in the Illinois legislature this winter, that would give all Chicago teachers the option of living outside the city, Ms. Lynch said.

The teachers’ union in Buffalo also would like to get its members out from under its district’s residency rule. The system last fall notified 27 teachers that they would lose their jobs if they did not move into the city by the end of this March.

“It’s not that they don’t want to live in the city, but they don’t want to be told,” said Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

A new survey of aspiring teachers enrolled in the State University of New York College at Buffalo indicates little enthusiasm for living in the city. Seventy-one percent of the 354 education students polled said they would either not apply for a job in Buffalo because of the residency requirement or give preference to a district that did not have such a rule.

Conducted by the college’s school of education and the teachers’ union, the survey excluded the more than 1,650 students who said they would not even consider teaching in Buffalo.

Mr. Coyle, the Buffalo school board member who once favored the requirement, says he’s trying to craft a proposal to relax the rule that could win over a majority of the board. He’d like to see a plan that uses incentives—like low- interest mortgages or bonuses—to entice, rather than force, educators to live in the city. That won’t be easy, though, as the district grapples with a major budget shortfall caused, in part, by the financial havoc wreaked on New York state following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Milwaukee, though the action would come too late for Ms. Page and her husband, teacher leaders are working on two fronts to try to remove the residency requirement there, both through current contract negotiations and state legislation.

City ‘Stakeholders’

But some city leaders maintain that such moves are shortsighted. One worry is that the elimination of residency rules for teachers could trigger a snowball effect among other public employees. Indeed, once teachers in Pittsburgh won the right to live outside the city, the police officers’ union filed a lawsuit to have the residency requirement lifted for its members.

“We feel it is absolutely critical that our employees are stakeholders in our community,” said Craig J. Kwiecinski, a spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Mildred Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, argues that the debate over residency rules misses the real problems underlying teacher recruitment in urban areas, which she maintains have more to do with salaries and working conditions.

Rather than hire educators who must commute long distances to work, she said, districts should “grow their own” by seeking out paraprofessionals in their schools and getting them additional training to become full-fledged teachers.

“We have to ask: Does this help children?” said Ms. Hudson, whose Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization works for improvements in teacher recruitment. “And we know that in these high-poverty communities, they are looking for a stable teaching force.”

Such arguments make little sense to Ms. Page. To be sure, she points out that there’s plenty to like about her new job, including smaller class sizes, supportive parents, and the challenge of meeting the high expectations that the community of Delafield holds for its children.

But she guesses that she would have stayed in Milwaukee for a few more years had it not been for the system’s residency rule.

“Your heart really lies with where you’re teaching,” Ms. Page said. “And you’re there because you want to be there for the children, and you want to make a difference for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as City Districts Lifting Rules On Residency


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