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Charter School Principal Churn — An Ominous Trend

The University of Washington’s National Charter School Research Project recently released a new report examining the impact of the high rates of principal turnover at charter schools in six states. This multi-year project found that as of 2007, 71% of charter school leaders planned to leave their schools within the next five years, and came to this troubling conclusion:

While the rate of leadership turnover is similar in both charter and traditional public schools, the impact of turnover is potentially higher for charter schools.

The researchers point out several reasons for this greater impact:

Many charter schools are still led by their original founders, and when they leave, the transition can be tricky.

Charter schools are often starting from scratch when it comes to finding a leader’s replacement.

Many charter schools are in denial when it comes to leadership turnover — half have no transition plan.

Overall, they find that at most charter schools “school leaders often do not make time for planning” and “governing boards have abdicated responsibility.” This lack of planning for leadership change often has unfortunate consequences, as in the case at one Texas school where

The long-term interim school leader spoke very highly of a teacher who she had determined would be her replacement when she left the next year. When this teacher was interviewed, he reported in confidence that he would be leaving the school at the end of the year because he felt that he was undervalued, wanted a chance to be a school leader somewhere, and had thrown his hat into the ring at other schools. The school leader had never told him that she hoped he would take over at the school.

Education expert Larry Cuban’s analysis of this research is similarly grim. As he notes:

These founders and their successors have complicated tasks in mobilizing political and economic support for the mission of the charter school, establishing a separate facility or one within a regular public school, dealing with the governing board, negotiating constantly with district officials who provide funding, and a score of other leadership tasks including managing efficiently a new school and supervising teachers. In short, charter school principals are closer to being superintendents in overall responsibilities, albeit only for one school, than a traditional principal in regular schools.

We’ve recently seen in New York City that the lack of a good process for replacing someone who’s serving as a superintendent can have the consequence of alienating even those who support an organization’s mission and goal. As New York’s charter authorizers prepare to review their latest round of charter school renewals and new applications, it would make sense for them to consider whether the state’s own charter schools also share this same lack of planning, and to insist that charter boards and leaders take responsibility for improving the ways they choose their leaders.