Former President Donald Trump thinks parents should have the ability to fire their children’s school principal.
“If you have a bad principal that’s not getting the job done, the parents will—under the Trump administration—be allowed to vote to fire that principal,” Trump said during a June 30 speech at the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors Summit in Philadelphia. “This will be the ultimate form of local control.”
The proposal is a novel idea, though the concept of an elected school administrator isn’t entirely foreign. Florida and Alabama are the only two states in the nation that allow schools to elect local superintendents. No states, however, allow for principals to be elected to their positions.
Trump argued that principal elections will give parents the power to take schools back from “radical Marxist maniacs.” In a campaign video, the former president said that he’d “implement massive funding preferences and favorable treatment” for states and school systems that adopt principal elections in addition to abolishing teacher tenure; adopting merit pay for teachers; cutting the number of administrators, especially those focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; and adopting a parents’ bill of rights that includes curriculum transparency.
Education Week decided to look into how principal elections could work. But the idea is flawed and impractical at best and dangerous at worst, education policy experts say. And Trump would have an arduous time instituting such a massive change for local education systems.
Can he do that?
As president, Trump would have little recourse to incentivize local communities to elect school principals and no ability to require it, said Derek Black, an education law and policy professor at the University of South Carolina.
“The president has no power, nor does Congress have any such power,” Black said. “It is theoretical that Congress could pass some sort of law giving states money and, in exchange for that money, states would agree to change their own law. The only means through which it could be accomplished is legislation.”
Trump has indicated he would advocate for such a law. But if Congress remains divided as it is currently, it would be nearly impossible to pass. Even among Republicans, it could be difficult, Black said, as some may perceive the move to be the federal government infringing on the U.S. tradition of local control of schools.
Trump may also have a difficult time inspiring states to change their laws for the same reason, Black said. Most states don’t have laws allowing for the election of school superintendents, much less the direct election of principals.
Widening the political divide in schools
If Trump succeeded in encouraging states to allow principals to be elected, communities that decide to do such a thing would have to restructure their entire election systems.
It’s unclear how voting districts for school principals would be set up. States could decide to have election districts match school zones, allowing only voters living in a school’s zone to vote on the principal—a move that would be complicated even more by school choice policies that allow students to attend schools in zones outside of where they live.
Or, voting districts could follow the structure established in school board elections, allowing voters to choose principals for schools their students don’t attend. It’s unclear, based on Trump’s description of the policy, if voters would be limited to parents with children currently attending the school or include parents of incoming or outgoing students. It’s also far from certain constitutionally that voters in school principal elections could be limited to parents.
“There would be lots of questions about what that actually would look like, who would be implementing that, and logistically how that plays out,” said Chris Curran, director of the Educational Policy Research Center at the University of Florida. “In the bigger picture, there are issues with what that could do in bringing more political divide to the school environment.”
Principal elections would naturally force prospective and current principals to become politicians, meaning they would have to spend their free time campaigning for votes, a time-consuming addition to an already demanding job.
There’s also a question of ethics. How might a principal who is hoping to win over voters to keep their job change the decisions they make as a school leader? The effects could be disastrous, said Edward Fuller, an education policy professor at Penn State University, who focuses his research on school leadership.
“It would impair their ability to be an effective principal because now you’re listening to some group of individuals in a community who have enough votes to vote you in or out,” Fuller said. “If you want to be principal, you have to do what they want you to do whether it’s good for kids or not.”
A blow to principal morale
The principal profession experiences higher rates of attrition and turnover than comparable management roles in other professions. That’s because of limited pay, the demands of the job, working conditions, and increasingly vocal parent opposition to school curriculum and policies, Fuller said.
Fuller, who has studied principal turnover in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Texas, said 10 to 15 percent of principals leave the profession each year and the average length of stay for a principal is four years, with around half of principals leaving the profession before the fifth year.
The shift to an elected model would only exacerbate those challenges, both leading to higher turnover and discouraging new principals from entering the profession, Fuller said.
“It would be disastrous for the principalship,” Fuller said. “We would see schools have a really difficult time getting anybody to do it.”
Higher principal turnover also leads to other problems in schools, including higher teacher turnover and lower math and reading scores. And past studies on the impact of elected superintendents have shown that students in districts with superintendents appointed by a local school board have outperformed students in districts with elected superintendents, though how a district selects its superintendent isn’t necessarily the determining factor.
The argument for parents’ rights
Trump wants to give voters control over their school principals to expand upon parental rights in the governance of schools, an issue that has become the top education agenda item for Republican presidential candidates, especially as organizations like Moms for Liberty—which endorses conservative school board candidates in much of the country—have gained political influence.
But it remains to be seen whether principal elections would be an accurate representation of parent voice. Turnout is historically low for school board elections, and the pool of people invested in an individual principal’s election would be even smaller.
And many parents, often for legal reasons, don’t have complete information about what is happening within schools. For example, a principal may decide to suspend a student, angering a group of parents. But the federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, would prohibit the principal from releasing specifics on such a situation, leaving voters to make up their own minds, Black said.
“It could be quite destructive,” Black said. “All of a sudden the principal, instead of becoming a school leader because that’s what the principal is … the principal becomes a customer service representative.”
There are ways to increase parent involvement and give parents more of a voice in schools that don’t require such a massive logistical transformation and are more realistic, Curran said. For example, some large districts, including Chicago, have elected local school councils that perform annual evaluations of principals and decide whether to renew principal contracts.
“Exploring some of those avenues might be more fruitful ways to think about how we encourage parents to be involved and give them a formal process to be involved in the decisionmaking,” Curran said.
While it will be nearly impossible for Trump to make elected principals a reality, the proposal itself and the rhetoric accompanying it have an impact on educators, Fuller said.
“What he’s communicating is principals aren’t doing their jobs, schools aren’t doing their jobs, and you have people on both sides of the aisle saying that,” Fuller said. “That’s one of the reasons we have a shortage of teachers and principals now, because of the constant attacks on educators.”
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as Trump Says Parents Should Elect Principals. What Would That Look Like?