SB 5085 and SB 5175. Why These Bills? Why Now?

Dr. Scott Seaman, Executive Director, AWSP
Feb 23, 2023


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For 51 years, AWSP has supported principals and assistant principals (the individuals) and the principalship (the profession) in the education of each and every student. We exist to support principals as a means to the same goal we all have in K-12 education: for all of our students to have hope. Today, we find ourselves in one of the most challenging spots in the history of our association, specifically regarding the two “principal bills", Senate Bills 5085 and 5175

It seems like the winds are shifting on these bills by the hour, but there’s been one constant: we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Many of our principals and assistant principals across the state want us to keep pushing for 5085 to pass in its original form. On the other hand, we have some districts, superintendents, partners, and school boards in opposition and with varying levels of frustration. AWSP is one of the strongest principals’ associations in the country, and our strong partnership and relationships with our districts is the driving force behind that. We know that nothing happens in a school without trust and relationships, so we’ve engaged with our partners on a path forward. {If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together}

I want to be clear. Our state has phenomenal superintendents and districts who are exemplary in their support of their principals, from strong relationships and partnerships, robust contracts, clear and defined due process protocols, and provide as much support as possible coupled with reasonable expectations. And over the last few years, we’ve heard more and more appreciation, compassion, and support for our principals and assistant principals. We’re not the only voice in the room saying we need to do more to support our principals, but we don’t need the educational equivalent of thoughts and prayers; we need policies and change. We have many options for how to move forward, but doing nothing is not one of them. Let’s talk briefly about why I’m sitting here talking to this camera, and you’re wherever you are, watching or listening to me. 

Let’s Talk About The Bills

When Senate Bill 5085 was introduced, these were the key components straight from the Senate’s Bill Report:

  1. Remove statutory limitations on the scope of collective bargaining for bargaining units containing only supervisors, or principals and assistant principals, or both.

  2. Require the citation of specific evaluation criteria when transferring a principal or an assistant principal to a subordinate certificated position.

  3. Require that years of administrator experience count towards total years in future positions when a principal or assistant principal is transferred to a non-administrative, subordinate position.

  4. Apply employment provisions relating to principals to assistant principals as well.

  5. Specify that in addition to whether an applicant has ever been placed on administrative leave, a school district employment application may not include a question asking whether the applicant has ever been on a plan of improvement, has ever been under an investigation, or has ever resigned in lieu of termination.

  6. Require evaluators of principals and assistant principals to receive training in evaluation procedures.

As we record on February 22nd, the current version of the bill is now different. The fifth bullet point was removed before it passed out of the Senate Education committee. The intent behind that section was to protect principals, who are often put on administrative leave at the drop of a hat for an investigation or grievance, only to be cleared of all wrongdoing. Those questions on a job application are typically used to screen out applicants. We feel the better option is to learn more about the candidates during interviews and reference checks. It’s better for the candidates, and that process can prevent districts from missing out on a great hire. 

The first bullet point of the bill has been the most controversial. Some superintendents were concerned that if principals and assistant principals were allowed to bargain more than just salary and the number of contract days, it would create another labor group that could create contentious relationships. After meeting with partners, including WASA, we asked for this section of the bill to be removed. There is a striking amendment that has been introduced to do just that. 

This same amendment also introduces a salary floor for school administrators relative to a district’s teacher salary schedule. It states the lowest paid assistant principal should make 5% more than the highest paid teacher. For principals, the gap should be 15%. Given the typical contract for principals and assistant principals includes 20% more working days, we can’t imagine there are many districts who aren’t already meeting this requirement when comparing base salaries. Unfortunately, the current fiscal note on the bill estimates the potential costs of bargaining working conditions, which should be struck from the bill. We don’t know the extra costs of adding a salary floor. 

SB 5085 was never intended to be an unfunded mandate or to have a fiscal component. It’s a first step towards making it easier to recruit, retain, and sustain our school leaders.

The other bill, SB 5175, simply ALLOWS districts to offer a three-year contract. Principal positions, especially at the high school level, are getting harder and harder to fill. The ability to offer or accept a three-year contract is one possible incentive to help reduce principal turnover. It can also provide the support a principal needs to dismantle systems that are bad for kids. We know change takes time, so we need our principals making decisions with a long-term vision and a plan, not simply leading to have a job the following year. 

As for the concern about buyouts? There are many ways to write a contract to give principals and assistant principals a little more protection and security while protecting the district’s ability to move on from cases of misconduct or mismanagement. 

Why We’re Here

Over the past few decades, the expectations for the role of the principal have changed. Principals are no longer just expected to manage the school but also to be the instructional leader, crisis manager, social worker, etc. Many principals report the job has grown more complex post-Covid. And if we want strong students filled with hope, we need strong schools to create them. Strong schools don’t exist without strong principals or assistant principals. 

Every job in k-12 plays an important role in our students’ success, but systematically, it makes sense to invest in principal leadership. Why? Listen to what The Wallace Foundation has to say.

...based on research since 2000, the impact of an effective principal has likely been understated, with impacts being both greater and broader than previously believed: greater in the impact on student achievement and broader in affecting other important outcomes, including teacher satisfaction and retention (especially among high-performing teachers), student attendance, and reductions in exclusionary discipline.

Can we just break that down for a minute? A greater impact on student achievement, so a direct impact on learning. And a broader impact on other important outcomes, like how they call out better teacher satisfaction and retention. We cannot create more equitable outcomes for students without a focus on attendance and reductions in exclusionary discipline. Just like our School Leader Paradigm, the principal directly affects the school’s culture, systems, and learning outcomes.

The Wallace Foundation also said:

An effective principal’s impact is stronger and broader than previously thought, making it ‘difficult to envision’ a higher return on investment in K-12 education than the cultivation of high-quality school leadership.

When they say the principal’s impact is stronger and broader than previously thought, keep in mind their previous research concluded principals had the second largest impact on student achievement, right behind a great classroom teacher. 

We’ll be putting together more links and resources to the research about the important roles principals and assistant principals play and the value investing in school leadership can return. But for now, we’ll leave you with two more quick nuggets to think about as we talk about our truths. First, only one in four principals is in the same school after five years. Secondly, it takes years to improve a school’s culture and build the systems necessary to impact learning for all. Those are two conflicting data points when considering the alarmingly high principal turnover rates across all grade levels, regions, and contexts.

We are the only organization in the state dedicated to advocating for and supporting principals, so it’s our duty to act. The intent of these bills is to provide more support for our current and future school leaders. While there isn't a magic wand or a single fix to make attracting, retaining, and sustaining effective principals, these bills are a good start. And yes, let’s increase the allocation for school leaders in the prototypical funding formula, but the reality we hear from legislators is that’s not going to happen this year. It’s also not going to fix the realities our leaders are facing. Even if every school could hire one additional AP, where are we going to find them? The market of exceptional leaders ready to take on the challenges of school leadership is shrinking fast. 

Our Truths

There are many reasons for that. Let’s look at the things we know to be true. 

  • According to our state surveys and in line with national surveys, the average principal or assistant principal is working six days a week for nearly 60 hours a week.

  • We’re receiving more calls in our office from principals in need of support, and we’re seeing an alarming amount of burnout and mid-year resignations.

  • We see far too many principals and APs put on administrative leave for months at a time without any resolution. In most cases, there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing. 

  • We are seeing more jobs posted for longer periods and with fewer applicants. 

  • We hear of more and more AP positions simply going unfilled.

  • In many districts, we’ve also seen the gap between principals' and assistant principals' salaries and teacher salaries narrow substantially. 

  • We’re seeing lower numbers for many of our state's principal prep programs, which holds true for our Washington State Intern Grant Program.

  • Of the people in our intern programs, the number of them wanting to lead a high school is shrinking to dangerously low levels. 

The question we hear more and more, whether from teachers, legislators, lawyers we work with, or even current principals: “Why would anyone want to be a principal?” 

Well, the answer is, despite being one of the toughest jobs in the world, we still believe it’s also one of the most rewarding and satisfying jobs. Our school leaders make a difference and leave a forever impact. What else do we believe?

Our Beliefs

  • Unless we fix some of these structural issues, things will get worse before they get better.

  • The principal problem isn’t just a principal problem. Shrinking numbers of school leaders combined with higher rates of turnover is costly for districts in terms of actual dollars and lost opportunities. It hurts teachers and kids, too, and has a direct impact on student achievement. 

  • Our system needs school leaders to stay in place long enough to make a difference. We also need some of our principals and assistant principals to take on roles in the central office and become superintendents themselves. 

For all of those reasons and more, we believe this principal problem is everyone’s problem. We need tangible solutions now. 

What We Hope

If you’ve stayed with me this long, thank you, and if you know anything about me and AWSP, you know we’re all about hope. I’ll leave you with a few things we hope and are hopeful for. 

  • We hope people are aware this isn’t our bill anymore. We can always advocate, just like we have and the bill’s opponents do, but it’s ultimately up to the Legislature at this point. 

  • We hope people understand principals are always stuck in the middle, just like we find ourselves in. Principals don’t have the power and authority of the superintendent or district office nor the strength in numbers of teachers or classified staff.

  • We hope to see thriving numbers in our intern grant and prep programs again and to stop getting calls from panicked superintendents because they can’t find qualified candidates to fill their open positions. 

  • To our members across the state, we hope you understand how hard we work on your behalf and how much we value and appreciate everything you do. 

  • To our partners across the state, we hope you realize the urgency we feel in doing something concrete and right now. More importantly, we hope you realize how much we value our relationships and partnerships. It takes all of us to make a difference for kids. 

Thanks again for watching, listening, or reading. We believe every student and teacher deserves great school leaders. Our intent with these bills was to create policy changes to help make that belief a reality. We know the status of these bills is likely to change, and it might even change by the time you’re getting this message. If you have any questions, please reach out to myself or my team. Keep checking our website for more updates and resources. And on behalf of all of us here at AWSP, and our foundation family at AWSL, Cispus, and Outdoor Schools WA, keep up the great work for kids. 

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