2015 Saw Historic Shift in State Education Leadership, New Report Says

By Daarel Burnette II — February 16, 2016 2 min read
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Across the nation, there was an unprecendented turnover in state level educational leadership in 2015, according to a new report issued by Achieve, an education advocacy organization focused on state level policy. And there appears to be no end in sight.

In 2015—a year in which there were 14 new governors and a new District of Columbia mayor—31 states got new education chiefs. In addition, there were 95 new state school board members in 33 states, a turnover of almost a fifth of all the country’s state school board members. In all, only seven of the 50 states saw no changes in educational leadership.

And it may not be over. In 2016 alone, there are set to be at least six new governors and two new education chiefs, and many board members’ terms will come to an end this year, according to the report. (Check out the detailed report for individual state changes).

This drastic shift in leadership comes shortly after President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which hands more power to state governments to shape the way they hold teachers and schools accountable.

Experts last month described to me several financial, cultural, and logistical challenges state departments of education will have to overcome in order to successfully implement new education policy.

New leadership could be “a hindrance to implementation,” said Kathy Cox, who served as the state schools superintendent in Georgia between 2003 and 2010 and now helps state departments implement policy as the CEO of the Delivery Institute, a consulting group. “It’s really hard work, and it hurts when there’s that constant churn of leaders. You get into inertia. It gives people a sense of, ‘Let’s just not do anything. We don’t know what direction we’re going to be pointed in next.’ ”

As my colleague Andrew Ujifusa wrote last year in describing the turnover in state superintendents, the change in leadership could be attributed to several things. Among them: several Southern states such as Kentucky and Tennessee flipping from majority Republican to majority Democratic as voting districts are were redrawn; education becoming a more political lightning rod as states pick up the majority of education costs; and education leaders’ jobs becoming more complicated and under increased pressure to implement federal education statutes and regulations.

What does this mean for local school districts? Here’s an interesting line I stumbled upon in Who’s in Charge Here?, a book edited by Noel Epstein and lent to me from our super-helpful Education Week library:

It is only common sense that institutions need to have someone in charge, someone who sets goals and strategies and is accountable for results. In business and finance it is the chief executive officer; in the military, the generals and admirals. If one were to sketch an organizational chart of the American elementary and secondary education systems, however, one would discover that there is no such line of responsibility. Instead one would find something closer to a spider's web that has grown increasingly tangled in recent years—a web in which it is difficult if not impossible, to figure out whether anyone is in charge. This is arguably the most fundamental flaw confronting our schools, with implications for all else that happens (or does not happen) in American public education. ... While local officials still have important management roles, the erosion of the American tradition of local school control increasingly means that they are implementing other people's goals and priorities."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.