Turnover Among State Spec.-Ed. Directors Sparks Concern
Fred W. Balcom had served for just over three years as Idaho's director of special education when his state's newly elected superintendent of public instruction asked him to resign this month.
In Virginia, Austin T. Tuning quit his job as state special-education director last fall to become an associate education commissioner in Kentucky.
New Jersey's former special-education chief, Jeffrey Osowski, moved up the ladder last fall to become the state's assistant commissioner for grants management and development.
These moves illustrate the turnover that has become a national trend among state directors of special education--a trend that has sparked concern at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the U.S. Education Department, and among parent-advocacy groups.
In the past three years alone, states have taken on 44 new special-education directors, according to NASDSE officials. Since 1985, an average of one state director has left his post every month.
"Nationally, we feel the effects of the instability of the leadership," said Martha J. Fields, the executive director of NASDSE. "In states where there's been a pattern [of turnover], the states and school systems have suffered."
Federal education officials say the turnover also complicates the task of monitoring state compliance with the federal mandate to provide students with disabilities a "free and appropriate" education, outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The Education Department has never studied the link between state-director turnover and violations in special-education law, said Thomas F. Hehir, the director of the federal office of special-education programs.
"But when we go into states that haven't had stability in their leadership, we see the difference," Mr. Hehir said.
Politics and Burnout
Changing political tides account for some of the turnover. For example, Mr. Balcom said one reason for his dismissal in Idaho was his strong support of including disabled students in the regular classroom, a view that conflicted with that of the new state chief. The new superintendent, Anne C. Fox, fired several longtime employees when she took office.
But there is another reason, state directors and NASDSE officials say: burnout in a job that requires skillful handling of an increasingly sophisticated and vocal parent-advocacy system, complex federal and state laws and regulations, and high-profile lawsuits.
Many current and former directors said special education has become increasingly politicized and controversial, requiring finesse in juggling groups that are often making contradictory demands.
"No matter what decision you make in this job, you're irritating some group," said Tom B. Gillung, an exception to the trend who has served as Connecticut's special-education director for 17 years.
Mr. Tuning said the combination of a job offer from Kentucky and a desire to "get away" from the daily pressures of his job led to his departure from Virginia. He cited as one common stress the increased public scrutiny of special education--from questions over the rising cost of providing such services to the number of lawsuits.
"You really operate in a fishbowl," Mr. Tuning said.
Lack of Leadership
In some states, the special-education director is a political appointee; in others, the position is better shielded from political changes in the state leadership. Nonetheless, turnover in this position nationally appears to be substantially higher than in other positions that often fall on the same rung of state hierarchies.
While officials of both the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education and the National Association of State Coordinators of Compensatory Education said they have not tracked their membership turnover, they said they have not experienced anything like the replacement rate among special-education leaders.
For example, over the past four years, an estimated 16 Title 1 directors have moved on, said Jessie R. Monta¤o of Minnesota, who was the president of the compensatory-education group last year.
Madeleine B. Hemmings, the executive director of the vocational-education group, said that even 10 new directors in a year would be a "very high" number.
The result of the special-education turnover, many parent groups say, is a loss of expertise and, in some cases, a loss of an advocate working from inside the system.
"I'm very worried about the historical perspective that is lost," said Patricia McGill Smith, the executive director of the National Parent Network on Disabilities, which represents 170 parent groups nationwide. "You lose a lot of time playing catch-up, and a lot of punting goes on."
When Mr. Balcom assumed the director's job in Idaho, he was the third special-education director in three years. Both his predecessors left to work with local districts.
"It was pretty chaotic when I took over," Mr. Balcom said.
The uncertainty about who will take Mr. Balcom's place makes Debra J. Johnson, the executive director of Idaho Parents Unlimited, nervous.
"We need the state leadership to maintain the strong legal guarantees of the law," she said.
The Toll in Louisiana
Louisiana's special-education director, Leon L. Borne, counted at least 13 predecessors since the early 1970's. The turnover there has been relatively consistent even though the position of state superintendent was made an appointed post in the mid-1980's.
That turnover has taken a toll, according to Janice A. Campagna, who has supervised special education in St. Bernard Parish, La., for more than two decades.
"It has led to a great deal of confusion and a great loss of [state] credibility at the local level," she said. "We always wonder: Is the director going to be around long enough to do the job?"