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Turnover Rate Among State Chiefs on the Upswing

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Lincoln, Neb.

Douglas Christensen, Nebraska's deputy commissioner of education, hopped up on a chair last week during a break in the Council of Chief State School Officers meeting to show off the red sneakers that he was sporting underneath his suit trousers.

The shoes--size 14--looked to be about five sizes too big, but that was precisely the point. Next year, Mr. Christensen explained, he will have to fill some big shoes when he takes over from Joseph E. Lutjeharms, who has served as Nebraska's commissioner of education for the past 12 years.

Nebraska is not the only state where newcomers are sizing up their duties. In the next four months, newly appointed or elected chiefs are set to take office in 11 states, boosting to 18 the number of chiefs with a year or less of on-the-job experience.

Such drastic change results from a rash of retirements and a few oddball election defeats, chiefs said at their meeting here.

"It's bizarre, isn't it?" said Thomas Sobol, the commissioner of education in New York.

Still, it reflects what most chiefs said is increasing turnover in their jobs, a trend that research says could stall state and federal reform efforts.

A New Breed

State superintendents once seemed to have the kind of tenure that only college professors could top. Three of the chiefs who are retiring this year--Wayne Teague of Alabama, Jerry Evans of Idaho, and Mr. Lutjeharms of Nebraska--have put in almost half a century in the job all told.

But now, state education heads seem to shuffle in and out of office as fast as professional baseball managers. The departure of so many veterans this year means that by March, only 13 of the 50 superintendents will have been elected or appointed in the 1980's.

The average tenure of the chiefs will then be roughly three years. Only two superintendents--Alan D. Morgan of New Mexico and Wayne G. Sanstead of North Dakota--will boast a decade of experience in the job.

Such change reflects the new role of many superintendents in shaping state policy, the chiefs said. Before 1983 and the release of the landmark federal report A Nation at Risk, superintendents largely worked behind the scenes.

But as governors, legislators, and interest groups have become more involved in education issues, chiefs have become coalition builders whose work sometimes attracts the public spotlight. The majority of them are not elected, but most now face the same political risks as many elected officials, the chiefs said.

"It's a high-profile job," said Mr. Teague, who was appointed by the state board in 1975. "You're under fire, and you're involved in everything."

Superintendents are less likely to make a life career of their job if they are pushing reforms, said Barbara S. Nielsen, the South Carolina state superintendent who survived a tough fight in her Republican primary this year.

"If you're a change agent," she said, "you can't imagine even in your wildest dreams staying in this job more than a few years."

High turnover has changed the group's makeup, particularly its gender ratio. The number of women superintendents has fluctuated, longtime chiefs said, but none could remember more than five at any time. There will be at least 13 next year, and Judith A. Billings, the superintendent in Washington state, will be president of the C.C.S.S.O.

The Revolving Door

Some chiefs said the turnover may have negative effects.

"I don't know how you can run as large an enterprise as a state education agency with that kind of disconnect," said Mr. Sobol, the education commissioner of New York. "Change every once in a while is good, but as a pattern, it's not healthy."

Researchers at the SouthEastern Regional Vision for Education, a federally funded education laboratory, came to a similar conclusion after studying the revolving door at state education departments in six Southern states.

Tracking changes in the top six posts in each agency, the 1994 report said the jobs had changed hands an average of three times since 1983. Only two of those 36 positions were held by the same person throughout the decade.

Serve concluded that the "instability" of educational leadership was one of six barriers to school reform in the Southeast.

"When leaders change," its report says, "the consensus [about school reform] frequently changes, and last year's panacea becomes this year's pariah."

Six of the nine superintendents taking office next year will be Republicans who could take their states in new directions. At least three support voucher plans that would give parents public funds to pay private school tuition. (See Education Week, 11/16/94.)

Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the C.C.S.S.O., downplayed the import of such differences. "We've had people on the council before who were strong leaders in both parties," he said. "But education is generally not a partisan issue."

Chiefs from both parties rallied around the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and helped make the C.C.S.S.O. a key player in the design and passage of the law.

The chiefs said they do not expect the newcomers to change the mission or agenda of the C.C.S.S.O., but that will not be clear until the group's legislative meeting in Washington, D.C., next March.

"We'll have to wait and see," Mr. Sobol said.

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