School & District Management

Law Giving Principals New Powers Under Fire in Arizona

By Mark Stricherz — January 17, 2001 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Some Arizona principals could gain far-reaching powers, including the ability to hire and fire teachers, under a new law that education groups are rallying to change.

The law calls for making designated principals “operationally and financially independent” of their districts. Conceived as a bold reshaping of the principalship, the Local Education Accountability Program, or LEAP, would allow a school leader, with the approval of the local board, to control everything from bus schedules to school supplies.

Since the measure’s passage last November as part of a larger state referendum, opponents have announced they will try to amend the law, which is widely viewed as posing problems. Among those preparing to lobby lawmakers this session are the state teachers’ union, administrators’ group, and school boards’ association.

But even supporters say the law, set to take effect in June, may be unworkable. Critics have raised strong objections to the measure’s liability and oversight provisions. In addition, some opponents argue that voters weren’t fully aware that the provision was part of Proposition 301, a $450 million sales-tax increase to benefit education. (“Ariz. Gov. Betting Big on Tax Plan for Schools,” Oct. 11, 2000.)

John Schilling, the chief of policy and planning for state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, who backs the measure, said nobody was happy with the law in its current form.

“What you have is reform-minded people like us ... who early on thought it would have lots of uses, but now think it’s probably not workable,” Mr. Schilling said.

“I agree that it was not well thought out,” said Sen. Jack A. Brown, the Democratic floor leader in the Senate, who voted for the provision when it passed the Arizona legislature last June.

Liability Questions

Arizona has one of the nation’s most expansive systems of charter schools. The law’s authors wanted to go even further in decentralizing school authority by cushioning designated principals from district bureaucracies.

Tom Smith

A guiding rationale for the legislation, said Sen. Tom Smith, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, was the fact that the state ranks near the bottom in sending money directly to the classroom.

Assuming the program takes effect as planned, participating principals will be able to contract on their own for services up to $5,000. With the written approval of district officials, they could buy even more. They could also hire and fire teachers, provided they followed district rules.

No more than 10 percent of the schools in a district, however, would be permitted to be independent of the district.

A major worry is the extent to which such independent principals could sue and be sued.

“The question of liability is huge,” said Mike C. Smith, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators. “Who’s liable? Who owns the facility? My guess is the school district will be sued.”

The legislation allows principals to buy liability, worker’s-compensation, and damage insurance. But Mr. Smith said it was unclear what would happen in the event of a prohibitively expensive lawsuit.

Mr. Schilling, of the state superintendent’s office, shares the concerns about liability. He noted that the law may be undermined by opposition from school boards, which must vote on whether a school can become independent.

“They’re already hostile to the law, and I doubt many of them are going to approve schools to do this,” he said. “Why would they?”

Other questions center on the issue of oversight of independent schools.

“I’m concerned ... that this will allow poor-performing principals to escape accountability,” said Rep. John F. Huppenthal, a Republican. “I think we need to work on the language a little bit.”

Penny Kotterman, the president of the Arizona Education Association, said the National Education Association affiliate would lobby to kill the law’s provision allowing principals to hire and fire teachers. “I don’t think any one person ought to do that,” she said.

The school administrators’ group plans to ask that principals be required to submit a development plan for their schools to a public hearing and seek approval for it from the school board.

Legislative Debate

Lawmakers said the law may also be undermined by the perception that it was enacted without public support, because the language of the Local Education Accountability Program was not on the ballot.

“People on the street aren’t supposed to be experts on things like this,” said Sen. Brown who believes voters didn’t understand the provision.

The legislature passed the measure as part of a much larger legislative package, which featured a sales-tax increase of 0.6 percent. But because Arizona law requires that tax hikes be backed by a two-thirds majority of both legislative chambers, lawmakers decided to send the measure to voters for the simple majority needed for approval. The Nov. 7 referendum was approved by 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent.

The measure’s language was not included on the 14-page information packet sent to voters. In addition, the referendum was one of 15 on the ballot.

Regardless of its public profile, the LEAP provision generated controversy among legislators last spring.

After Republican Sens. Smith and Ken Bennett unveiled the legislation, education groups successfully argued for stripping it of much of the language they opposed. A number of conservatives now want the legislation returned to its original draft form. One provision would have allowed principals to hire and fire teachers without adhering to district guidelines.

Sen. Smith expressed bitterness that the legislation was “watered down” in negotiations.

“This [referendum] is going to generate $1.65 billion after 20 years, and when you have that kind of money, you should have some type of reorganization to make sure the money is well spent,” said the senator, who voted against the legislation. “The NEA just says, ‘Give us more money, give us more money.’ They don’t give a damn about organization.”

Still, some Democrats said Republicans won at least some of what they wanted. Said Sen. Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat: “This wasn’t going to move unless some of these conservatives got their pound of flesh.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Law Giving Principals New Powers Under Fire in Arizona

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Educators Must Look to History When They Advocate for Changes
Educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas when making changes in education, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Reconsidering Causes of Principal Burnout
The state and federal governments are asking us to implement policies that often go against our beliefs, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Just How Widespread Are the Threats to Educators Over COVID Policies?
An EdWeek Research Center survey asked district and school leaders if they, or anyone on their staff, had faced threats.

3 min read
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove a parent from a school board meeting during a heated discussion about mask mandates in September.
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove a parent from a school board meeting during a heated discussion about mask mandates in September.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP