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Judge: Stripping veteran teachers of tenure rights unconstitutional

Posted May 16, 2014 11:25 a.m. EDT
Updated May 16, 2014 6:40 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge on Friday struck down a law requiring veteran teachers to surrender their tenure rights in exchange for multi-year contracts.

Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the law, passed last year as a provision in the state budget, violates the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution and amounts to an illegal taking of property under the state constitution. He issued a permanent injunction against the law and denied the state's request to stay his ruling pending an appeal.

Teachers with tenure, officially called career status, are given extra due process rights, including the right to a hearing if they are disciplined or fired.

Lawmakers called on school districts to identify the top 25 percent of their teachers and offer them new four-year contracts with $500 annual salary increases. In exchange, those teachers would lose their career status protections. The provision aims to move North Carolina to a performance-based system for paying teachers instead of one based on longevity.

The North Carolina Association of Educators sued in December to halt the law, arguing that the state couldn't arbitrarily take away the tenure rights teachers had worked to earn.

"It looks like school boards are off the hook for having to determine what the process looks like to actually identify the top 25 percent – and realistically, more than 25 percent of the teachers in our schools deserve to have career status," NCAE President Rodney Ellis said Friday.

Attorneys for the state argued that the law provides school districts with more flexibility in trying to attract and retain the best teachers. Career status, they said, makes it harder to get mediocre teachers out of the classroom.

Hobgood ruled that the contract requirement "was not reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose" and provided school districts "no discernible, workable standards" for picking the teachers who would receive the new contracts.

"The contractual obligation is present with each public school teacher who has already been awarded career status and has an existing career contract with that teacher’s board of education,” Hobgood said. "The state’s action ... would impair that contract.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who crafted the provision to end tenure, called the ruling "a classic case of judicial activism" and said lawmakers would work to appeal the decision.

"Today, a single Wake County judge suppressed the will of voters statewide who elected representatives to improve public education and reward our best teachers with raises," Berger said in an email.

A Guilford County judge likewise ruled last month that the tenure law violated the state and federal constitutions. But that ruling applied only to Guilford County Schools and Durham Public Schools, which had filed a separate lawsuit.

Ellis called the ruling "a great day for public school educators" and said ongoing court battles between lawmakers and teachers – a lawsuit over a private school voucher program adopted by the General Assembly last year is still pending – "utter madness."

"At some point, we really just need to get all parties at the table to have a conversation about what we really want for public schools in North Carolina. Until we do that, I think you’re going to continue to see this type of situation arise where we’re having to come to court," he said. "It’s a shame that we have to do that, but it’s the reality we live in right now."

Although Hobgood ruled that the state cannot retroactively strip tenure rights from teachers who have earned it, he dismissed a teacher who hadn't yet earned tenure as a plaintiff in the case, leaving open the possibility that lawmakers could prevent teachers from earning tenure in the future.

"Those that are in the pipeline, I don’t think that they will be able to secure tenure in the future," Ellis said.