Date: 
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Failure to plan for leadership turnover puts charter schools at risk

Seattle, WA - Over 70% of charter school leaders surveyed for a new study expect to leave their schools within the next five years, yet most charter schools are not prepared to deal with leadership succession, according to a report from the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Many charter schools appear to be in denial regarding leadership turnover. Only half (53%) of the 400 charter school leaders surveyed for the study reported having succession plans in place, and most of those plans were weak or rudimentary. Of the 24 schools visited, only 5 had strong plans in place, with two common elements: the school leaders (all with prior business experience) had put planning on the agenda, and the schools were not in the midst of other crises.

Charter school leaders are often too mired in everyday demands to put strategic and leadership planning on the agenda, and governing boards and authorizers too often take a backseat on this issue. While most school leaders affiliated with charter management organizations (CMOs) reported that their schools had succession plans (74%), there was some confusion as to who would make final decisions: school leaders or CMO leaders.

Founder transitions present their own challenge: school mission is often so closely tied to an original founder that their departure can lead to a school's identity crisis, and previously unnoticed or unaddressed organizational weaknesses commonly surface.

For the nation's 5,000 charter schools, preparing for leadership succession is a very real concern. Author Christine Campbell outlines important steps charter schools can take to stabilize a school and better position it to choose the best possible leader. Specifically:

  • Charter schools should pay attention to succession management techniques from the nonprofit sector.
  • Governing boards need to step up to one of their most important duties: recruiting and selecting school leaders.
  • Authorizers should request emergency leadership plans and more detailed succession plans as part of the charter application and renewal process.
  • School leaders need to mentor next-in-line leaders and staff members.
  • Leaders should consider succession management, an emergency replacement plan, a strategic plan, and strategic development of leadership capacities organization-wide.

Failure to pay attention to this issue will leave today's charter school futures open to chance. The wrong leader or an unsuccessful transition can cause a school to flounder and lose ground. School leaders and governing boards need to look beyond daily demands and regular crises and make planning for the future a priority.

The report, You're Leaving? Sustainability and Succession in Charter Schools, draws from an original survey of charter school leaders, in-person interviews with charter school leaders and governing board members, and a review of literature and current research in the education and nonprofit sectors. It is part of the Inside Charter Schools initiative, a four-year study of charter school teachers and leaders.