Could Bill Gates or Donald Trump run a school district better than a lifelong professional educator? The Texas State Board for Educator Certifications wants to answer that question by waiving Texas’s requirement that superintendents have teaching experience.
The idea isn’t new, and advocates of “non-traditional” candidates say it’s past due for the Lone Star State. “Superintendents run organizations. They need not be capable of teaching, but of managing, and should leave the teaching to the teachers,” says Peggy Venable, policy and legislative director at Americans for Prosperity Foundation of Texas.
Big cities from Los Angeles to New York have hired non-educators — even politicians — to lead their schools. Ray Romer, the former Colorado governor appointed to head Los Angeles’ schools, said, “I was not the expert in how to teach kids, but I had the ability to find out who were the experts, and I put them in charge.”
Texas districts headed by professional educators have had their problems in recent years.
- Beaumont’s superintendent was ousted when the city’s schools became the target of federal investigations and a state takeover after a series of financial scandals.
- El Paso schools were rocked by a cheating scandal that led to the conviction of the superintendent.
- Leander schools owe three times as much in interest payments as taxpayers approved in their bond initiatives. The Texas Bond Review Board reports the district, with an enrollment of 34,000 students, now carries a debt load topping $3.45 billion.
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Gary Ray, president of a widely used school executive search firm in Iowa, said, “A lot of school districts are saying, ‘We need someone with leadership skills to pull all this together, make this work,’ and that does not necessarily mean someone with an education background.”
Kate Kuhlmann, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, says successful superintendents require teaching experience:
Every superintendent needs a strong understanding of how education works, the needs of every student, and how administrative influence can change educational outcomes. This is something that can only be gained from first-hand experience in the classroom.
Venable counters that putting former teachers in the front office does not ensure academic excellence:
School district employees should applaud the opportunity to have the best manager hired, and often those come from the private sector, where they have worked in a competitive environment and are customer-focused.
The superintendent of Dallas’s public schools, she notes, is responsible for 18,500 employees and a $1.8 billion operating budget. The “customer base” is 160,000 students, their parents and the district’s taxpayers, more than half of whose property taxes go to the schools.
“When superintendents oppose new certification standards, they are likely seeking greater job security. After all, they are in a largely monopoly field,” Venable added.
Trump has echoed that theme, saying, “Our public schools have grown up in a competition-free zone, surrounded by a very high union wall. Why aren’t we shocked at the results?”
A national survey by the Council of Great City Schools shows superintendent tenure rose from 2.33 years in 1999 to 3.64 years today, with non-traditional leaders mirroring the average.
Romer, L.A.’s school chief from 2000-2006, cautioned: “You can’t bring just anybody in. There is no guarantee it will succeed. It takes a really unique and dedicated person to make it work, and you have to acquire a whole lot of knowledge of educational practice and strategy.”
Texas’ education certifications board approved the superintendent waiver on first reading this month. The board is scheduled to ratify that vote Oct. 16. Public comment is being accepted online.
Read more by Kenric Ward at Watchdog.com.