Rapid Turnover of State Schools Chiefs Across the Country

By Sean Cavanagh — June 20, 2011 2 min read
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If you were a state schools chief who was recently voted out, tactfully eased out, or unceremoniously pushed out of office, take heart. You weren’t alone on your way out the door.

So far in 2011, 18 states have seen new schools chiefs come into office, and six other states are currently conducting searches for new leaders, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers, which says the turnover this year has been unprecedented.

Why the heavy churn? In a few cases, like that of longtime Maryland state chief Nancy Grasmick, the current officeholders simply decided to retire from their posts. Some of the turnover came about as a result of last fall’s elections, which featured seven state schools chiefs’ races on the ballot. Winners of state races typically take office at the start of the next calendar year.

The 2010 election also saw Republicans wrest control of a majority of governor’s offices and a record number of state legislative seats. Governors often try to put their own people in the state superintendent’s job, or arrange to have their appointees to state boards of education do it for them.

The changeover can produce bruised feelings. A few months after Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office, for instance, state education commisioner Eric J. Smith announced he would resign, a move that drew an angry response from the state board of education chairman, who implied that the new governor had ignored Smith and was trying to direct the board on the hiring of a replacement.

In March, Ohio state superintendent of education Deborah Delisle announced that she would resign, after she said she was pressured to do so by Republican Gov. John Kasich’s staff. A top Kasich aide thought to be a possible successor, however, recently bowed out of the running.

It’s common for governors to want their own people in as education commissioner or schools superintendent, even if that person doesn’t answer directly to a state’s chief executive. After all, having an ideologically like-minded person in the education job makes it easier to govern—particularly if you’re a governor pushing a controversial agenda.

Don’t be surprised if we see more turnover, including voluntary resignations in the months ahead. With state lawmakers across the nation pushing for major, and in many cases unpopular changes in school policy—and in some cases approving deep K-12 budget cuts—these aren’t necessary fun times to be a state schools chief.

Yet this is also a time when many states could probably use some clear-eyed leadership at the top. Many will face big challenges in implementing new laws on merit pay, teacher evaluation, collective bargaining and other issues.

And if Congress does not move quickly to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, states will face increasing pressure to meet the law’s mandates—or come up with viable alternatives to the federal requirements, an idea some states are discussing.

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