From the Field

Q&A: Richmond on Catholic Schools in a Changing Education Landscape

Greg Richmond became superintendent of the 154-school Archdiocese of Chicago school system in 2021, after more than two decades in the Chicago Public Schools and the charter school sector. As the founding director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, he led a national campaign to strengthen the quality of charter schools. Richmond, a FutureEd senior fellow, spoke recently with FutureEd Editorial Director Maureen Kelleher about the challenges facing parochial schools in an evolving educational landscape. 

What’s happening to enrollment in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools? 

We did get an increase in enrollment two years ago because of the pandemic. We kept our schools open during the pandemic. Not that first spring when the whole world shut down. But then most of public education stayed closed the following fall, fall 2020. I wasn’t here, but the Catholic schools in Chicago in most places opened for in-person instruction. Then the fall after was another pandemic year. Especially that second fall, we attracted a lot of people. So we got a nice enrollment increase.

Since then, overall, it kind of stays flat. But within that dynamic there are very different things happening. Schools in low-income communities, where kids are eligible for a tax-credit scholarship, their enrollment has gone up each of the past two years. Schools in wealthy communities, where families aren’t eligible for a tax-credit scholarship, but they have money, their enrollment has gone up. It’s the middle-class families who are getting pinched by inflation. Our enrollment in those schools has gone down. The middle class is getting squeezed because of inflation, so fewer of them are making the decision to pay Catholic school tuition.

Currently, about 9,000 Illinois students attend private schools through tax-credit scholarships. But the program is set to expire December 31 if the legislature doesn’t renew it. How many Archdiocesan students are currently receiving tax-credit scholarships? How big a hit would your schools take if the program sunsets?

If nothing happens in the legislature, it will sunset December 31. Nobody would lose a scholarship this school year. For this school year, everyone who has a scholarship is safe. But if they don’t do something this fall, it will sunset. In 2021-22, we had about 2,970 students attending our schools on $14 million in tax-credit scholarships [of $303 million in tuition revenue that year].

There’s opposition that was pretty organized last spring, and pretty effective. We’re going to take another run at [renewing] it this fall. If legislators don’t renew it, there will be thousands of kids who will lose their school. For us, as a school system, we’ll take a haircut, but it’s the kids who will really lose out.

What’s your take on education savings accounts? 

I’m far from an expert on ESAs, but they always seem to be a very cumbersome mechanism to try to create choices for families. Without a lot of transparency, we have a hard time understanding what’s happening. What are the outcomes?

I always felt like the charter method was more honest to the public. We have certain standards you need to meet. If you do meet them, then you can get funded.  ESAs are very opaque. I think over time, like 20 or 30 years, they will just get regulated the same way charters got regulated over time. But right now it’s hard to understand what’s happening.

Does being superintendent of the Archdiocese resemble being a school district leader under mayoral control, because, ultimately, you’re answerable to Cardinal Cupich? 

What it’s most like is charter schools.

A lot of people have a conception that the Catholic Church is very hierarchical: it starts with the Pope, and then everyone below the Pope just does what they’re told. What I discovered in this position is, no, that’s not it at all. Parishes have a lot of autonomy within church law.

There’s a principle they refer to frequently in meetings here: the principle of subsidiarity. The pastor has authority over the parish, and the school is considered to be part of the parish. So there are limits to the Archdiocese’s authority, to what a bishop or the cardinal can order a pastor to do, or, by corollary, what the superintendent of schools can order a principal to do.

I’ve got some levers I can pull, and there are statutory things: health and safety, fire drills, some employment laws, you know. But the Catholic schools have a fair amount of autonomy. That resembles how charter schools relate to their authorizer.

How does that work when you want to launch a new initiative? You’ve made principal development a priority.

I’ve borrowed a page from what I see high-performing charter school networks do. When charter school networks that are very much in demand, like KIPP or Success Academy, are asked to open more schools, the number one issue is how quickly they believe they can identify and place a high-quality principal. If they develop one new high-quality principal from their network a year, that’s the rate at which they will open new schools. If they can do three, they’ll do three.

One of the things I asked when I started at the archdiocese was: roughly, how many principals do we need to hire in our system every year? We have about 20 principal vacancies every year. OK, where do they come from? What I observed when I started was that we just post position openings and hope people apply.

We have to be more strategic than that.

We need to have a development program of our own that is inviting people who are currently within our schools to consider becoming a principal and then supporting their development.  We need to be teaching them what they need to be a good principal. We need to support their development over time, through a pipeline, so that every spring we have at least 20 principals coming out of that pipeline ready to go into schools.

We’re in the midst of building that pipeline right now. We’re hoping to add a higher education component, where we will partner with some universities and our candidates can earn graduate degrees. I’d say we’ll have a light version of that in place—knock on wood—by next spring. And hopefully a full version of it by the following year.

How about filling teacher vacancies?

We have about 3,000 teachers. And every year we need to fill about 400 to 500 positions. We don’t pay well. I was astounded by the low teacher pay in our schools.

We’ve increased it. While our schools have a lot of autonomy, we do have the ability to create a universal salary schedule. The two years I’ve been here, it’s gone up 10 percent. It’s still super low. Ten percent of super low is still low. A new teacher in our system gets paid in the mid-thirties, so that’s a problem. Since 80 to 85 percent of our budget is compensation costs, salary increases flow right into tuition levels. So, you have to balance that against families’ ability to pay.

So how else do you attract teaching talent to parochial schools?

When I first started two years ago, I went to our online system and saw over 400 teacher vacancies posted. I was quite startled, because school was starting in a few weeks, and there were more than 400 vacancies [13 percent of the school system’s teaching force]. I asked about it with a sense of urgency [and the response was,] “Oh, yeah, it’s like that every August.” That’s not good. We have to do better.

So we put a lot of work into getting better. We’re still putting work into getting better. I don’t want to act like, oh, we got this all figured out, but it has gotten a lot better. I want to get it to zero, but it has gotten a lot better.

We’ve hired recruiters centrally to help try to find people. We’ve been improving how our application process works, making it easier to apply. We’ve done any number of things like that. As a result, the number was below 100 this past August.

Some of them are former public-school teachers, and they just say, “Hey, look, I know I took a big pay cut to work here, but it’s in my neighborhood. I’ve known these families.” They like the sense of community.

Also, there’s just less politics in Catholic schools than in public education. Everything in our country has become more political, more divisive in the last few years, and public education has not been immune to that. So you see all these nasty school board fights and the culture wars being fought. So we have teachers that come to the Catholic schools and say, “Look, I just want a little more sanity. More sanity, more stability, more sense of community. I just want to teach.”

Speaking of polarization, it seems like red states are solving education problems by handing people checks to educate their kids privately, and blue states are doubling down on defending public education in a way that means anything innovative is seen as an attack. 

Charter schools were the last issue that had bipartisan support. There was always a part of the tent that supported charters because they were part of school choice, and there was another part of the tent that supported charters because they saw it as a strategy to improve outcomes for low-income kids. But there was always tension. What you started to see under the last few years of the Obama Administration, is the sides just parted ways. I remember hearing people say, look, we’re losing the conservatives in the charter movement. They’re done. They think it’s too regulatory, too liberal. All this talk about [diversity, equity, and inclusion], and that kind of stuff. They’re going to education savings accounts. They want more choice.

And then there’s testing. For many years, the left and the right would agree, yes, you have to have good academic outcomes. The right moved away from it in favor of choice. The left moved away from it because, they contend, test scores are discriminatory and that’s not equitable.

I am a supporter of school choice. I’m also a supporter of equitable outcomes. Those are not mutually exclusive. And they are not exclusive of good academic outcomes. We shouldn’t be saying that it is either-or. We need policy organizations willing to say it’s not either-or, that we can have good academic outcomes and choice and equitable outcomes. It feels like there are not many organizations trying to raise that flag every day. So there’s an opportunity there for people to try to take that ground again.

Photo credit: courtesy of the Archdiocese of Chicago