As the charter movement matures from its youth of experimentation and independence to become a recognized part of the education establishment, charter schools are having to face issues of leadership and succession. A new report from the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that many charter schools were not prepared for smooth transitions when they had changes in leadership. Well-planned leadership succession, the report writes, is “an essential piece of the reform’s approach to sustainability.”
The report, entitled You’re Leaving? Succession and Sustainability in Charter Schools, found that while leadership turnover rates were about the same in charter and traditional public schools, on average, some features of charter schools can make leadership transitions much trickier. While public school districts often develop pipelines of educators being groomed for leadership roles, independent charter schools don’t have such talent pools to draw on. Also, while charter leaders have the same responsibilities as principals in traditional public schools, they also may have to carry out some duties handled at the public school district level, such as fundraising, government and public relations, and accountability – especially if they are not part of networks or management organizations. Further, charter schools often define themselves through a specific mission or culture making it tricky to find a new leader who “fits” completely. Similarly, one of the hardest transitions can occur when a charter school’s original founder leaves and a new leader must figure out how to assert him- or herself as a leader without upsetting the school’s identity, which may be closely tied to the founder. Still, the CRPE report found that schools experiencing “life-cycle changes” such as a new growth phase often decided to bring in new leaders to direct the changes.
CRPE based its conclusions on surveys of 400 charter school leaders and fieldwork in 24 charter schools in California, Hawaii, and Texas. Highlights from the survey included that 71 percent of charter school leaders said they expected to leave their schools within five years, one-third of schools had no succession plan in place, and schools run by charter management organizations were much more likely to have succession plans than independent schools. The fieldwork at 24 schools produced these findings, among others:
- 5 schools changed leaders during the study’s two years of fieldwork.
- 10 schools were still led by their original founders.
- 12 schools were grooming or considering current staff as possible leaders, taking advantage of their familiarity with the school’s culture and mission.
- 14 schools had no leadership succession plan and only 5 had fully developed plans that identified and worked with current strengths and weaknesses, identified potential leaders from the staff, and developed job descriptions in case the board decided to recruit from outside.
The report notes that planning for succession often gets lost in the day-to-day pressures of running a school. It concludes with several recommendations including that charter schools should look to nonprofit organizations for examples in successful leadership transitions since they share many characteristics with charter schools; that charter school governing boards need to be more assertive about accountability, oversight, and strategic planning; that authorizers should work with charter schools to ensure that viable succession plans are in place; that current school leaders should mentor potential successors; and that schools should develop plans for both long-term orderly successions and short-term emergency replacements to make sure the school keeps operating if something unexpected happens to the current leader.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read these papers from NCSC researchers about leadership in schools of choice.