Supreme Court upholds tenure rights for veteran teachers

The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that North Carolina lawmakers overstepped their powers when they tried to strip veteran teachers of their tenure rights.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Veteran teachers will keep their career status rights, what some call tenure, under a unanimous ruling issued by the state Supreme Court Friday.

The decision stems from a 2013 state law that would have forced teachers who had earned certain job protections to give those up starting in 2018. However, the ruling does not affect younger teachers who were hired after the 2013 law went into effect or teachers who had not served long enough to have achieved career status.

"We are glad the Court recognized the General Assembly’s attempt to strip away rights from teachers as unconstitutional," Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement.

The NCAE and five veteran teachers had sued to overturn the law. Ellis vowed to keep pushing lawmakers to give career status to teachers who are currently excluded from the protections.

"Career status is an important tool to recruit and retain quality educators, just like fair compensation and working and learning conditions that lead to student success," he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he was disappointed in the ruling but pleased that the court allowed the state to eliminate tenure for new teachers.

"While we are disappointed in today’s decision, we are pleased that the law eliminating tenure on a going-forward basis has been upheld so our students can receive the best educational outcomes," Berger said.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said they he would "respect" the ruling. "I believe that we need to focus on recruiting and retaining the best teachers for our classrooms and great teachers should be rewarded for their work. We need to continue to push for policies that allow local school administrators to remove teachers that consistently underperform."

Tenure rights have been part of a broader debate about reforming education, with Republicans who control the General Assembly arguing that state school systems need to be more nimble and better able to spur teachers to success. Democrats and teachers groups have argued that career status protects teachers from the whims of an oft-changing cast of administrators and occasionally unreasonable parents.

When lawmakers moved to strip tenure rights in 2013, they did it as part of a state budget proposal that carried a number of education reform measures. In 2014, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood overturned the tenure revocation, and in 2015, the Court of Appeals upheld Hobgood's ruling.

"While we acknowledge that the retroactive repeal was motivated by the General Assembly’s valid concern for flexibility in dismissing low-performing teachers, we do not see how repealing career status from those for whom that right had already vested was necessary and reasonable," Justice Bob Edmunds wrote for the Supreme Court this week.

Edmunds went on to conclude, "The vested contractual rights of those teachers were substantially impaired without adequate justification, in violation of the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution."


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