Tucked inside the more than a thousand pages of revised education code approved by the Florida legislature this month is a one-sentence provision that would open principals’ jobs to all comers.
Districts could set their own minimum requirements for filling such positions, hiring as principals candidates who lack the state’s school-administration credential.
The measure would make Florida among the least restrictive states for administrator licensing, national observers say. One of the only states with fewer restrictions is Michigan, which several years ago stopped licensing administrators altogether.
The provision on principals drew little public attention amid the battles over other issues in the new school code, including unsuccessful amendments that dealt with religious expression and guns in schools.
Still, the Sunshine State’s principals lobbied hard against what they argued was an ill-advised move that would lower the standards for school- level leaders.
Supporters of the change countered that the state’s licensing rules have kept otherwise qualified candidates out of the field, while doing little to ensure the competence of principals.
“If it works like we think it might, we can get some really talented folks in young retirement age to step forward and take over these key positions,” said James E. King Jr., the majority leader of the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Florida’s current licensing rules require candidates for principalships to have taught for a minimum of three years, earned a master’s degree or higher, and completed training in specified areas like management, education law, and curriculum and instruction.
‘Taco Bell’ Principals?
Under the new legislation, the state education department would continue to offer administrator credentials to individuals who applied, but districts would no longer be obligated to hire only those who held them. Critics derided the option by saying it could lead to the “Taco Bell principal,” meaning that a manager of a fast-food restaurant could be hired to run a school.
Doug Crawford, the executive director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Association of School Administrators, called the new provision “a slap in the face of professionalism.”
“Our state issues hundreds of different kinds of licenses, for architects and accountants and contractors,” he said. “They all have to meet the state criteria to get a license, but then we take the most critical part of education and dilute that.”
To what extent school systems would actually exercise the new option, however, remains to be seen. A nationwide wave of principal retirements—coupled with a Florida program aimed at encouraging public employees to retire early—could lead systems to look beyond the pool of traditional candidates.
But given the pressure to demonstrate school improvement, some experts believe that districts would still only hire principals with strong backgrounds in education.
That’s what happened in Michigan, said Jim Ballard, the executive director of the Lansing- based Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. Since the Great Lakes State did away with all licensing of school administrators in 1996, he said, districts have continued to advertise for principals who would qualify for state credentials if they were still offered.
Although he opposed the elimination of the credentialing rules, “I don’t think Michigan education has been hurt by it,” Mr. Ballard said.
Some local school leaders in Florida similarly expect little to change in practice.
“I doubt very seriously that this school board here will buy in to it, even though the state will now allow it,” said John C. Fryer Jr., the superintendent of the 126,000-student Duval County district, which includes Jacksonville.
Mr. Fryer seeks new principals with public school experience, even though he himself came from the military and would not qualify under the state’s previous licensing rules to serve as a principal.
Florida does not license superintendents. But the former U.S. Air Force general contends that district leaders and school leaders need different kinds of skills.
“We’ve got to get back to the focus on instruction,” Mr. Fryer said. “And the instructional leaders have to be the principals. And the only way they can is if they’re experts on instruction.”
Some observers expect more states will change credentialing rules for school administrators. Joseph Murphy, a national expert on school leadership who heads the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy, said: “Florida is a pretty good example of how the environmental forces are going to impact the issue of licensing.”
New Rules for Board Pay
The hiring of principals isn’t the only area where Florida lawmakers sought to give local leaders greater flexibility. The legislators also added a provision to the voluminous education bill that would let local school boards approve their own salaries.
Currently, state policymakers are responsible for setting—and periodically raising—pay rates for district board members. The state also sets salaries for other locally elected officials, such as sheriffs.
Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, is expected to sign the education bill soon.
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Fla.'s New Code Drops Requirement For Principal Licenses