School & District Management

Law Giving Principals New Powers Under Fire in Arizona

By Mark Stricherz — January 17, 2001 5 min read
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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.”

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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

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