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Superintendent Vacancies Are High. Is Loosening Requirements a Good Idea?

High rates of superintendent vacancies have caught the eye of concerned lawmakers in at least one state.

Wisconsin legislators passed a bill to expand the pool of superintendent candidates by waiving state requirements for the role.

But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former district and state superintendent, recently vetoed the measure, which would have allowed districts to hire superintendents who do not have state licenses. He cited concerns that unlicensed candidates would not have the experience or training to work with children and lead complex school systems.

“This concept is a non-starter,” Evers said in a March 29 statement.

The veto comes as many states see high rates of superintendent attrition, a trend that concerns education leadership experts. They say districts need a steady hand at the helm to help them weather pandemic-era challenges related to finances and academic recovery. Frequent turnover at the top can lead to shifts in strategy, programs, and staffing that interfere with student learning.

“Often, districts will fill their administrative vacancies by hiring another district’s superintendent, leaving them to compete for a limited number of applicants in a thin talent pool,” Wisconsin state Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a September 2023 committee hearing.

Eighteen percent of Wisconsin school districts changed superintendents between the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years, according to the National Longitudinal Superintendent Database. In fourteen states, more than 20 percent of districts had a superintendent turnover in that same time period, said Rachel White, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who helps lead the project.

Actions to address superintendent turnover

Some other states have sought to address instabilities in the superintendent pipeline through proposals that would allow districts to seek limited waivers of superintendent requirements or by creating expedited pathways for licensure, White said.

While it is encouraging to see state lawmakers voice concern about superintendent workforce issues, it is important that efforts to address them are informed by the complex nature of the role, White said. In promoting the Wisconsin bill, one of its sponsors compared superintendents to business leaders and suggested it would not take “a lifetime in the field” to manage a team of educators.

But being an effective superintendent “requires deep knowledge of leading in the areas of cultivating an inclusive educational environment, implementing high-quality curriculum and instructional approaches, supporting student and staff well-being, working in partnership with the community to develop and pursue a shared vision, effectively managing school finances, and so much more,” White said.

Unlicensed district leaders may also face legal barriers carrying out federal special education law or employee evaluations, the bill’s opponents said.

Under the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s licensure requirements, district administrators must have six semesters of teaching or pupil services experience and complete an educator preparatory program specialist degree or doctoral degree, Evers said in his statement.

State licensure requirements include an exemption for Milwaukee Public Schools that dates back to the early 1990s, Republican supporters of the bill said. It would make sense to give other districts the same flexibility, they argued.

If legislators want to address superintendent workforce issues in their states, they could consider steps other than removing licensure requirements, White said.

Such steps could include providing flexibility in state laws that cap the duration of superintendent contracts, so that school boards can more easily retain talented leaders by signing agreements for longer employment terms. States could also consider limited waivers of licensure requirements that would allow candidates to take a job conditionally if they complete their license within a year, White said.

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