Rich Nixon loves his job.
A 34-year veteran teacher at Corinth Holders High in Wendell, he teaches U.S. history to 11th-graders, and he’s pretty sure that come fall, he’ll be there for his 35th year.
Nixon has tenure, like other North Carolina teachers who made it past a probationary period of four years. That doesn’t mean he has a guaranteed job for life – the common definition of tenure for university professors. It does mean that he would be entitled to a hearing if his superiors tried to fire him.
But that protection would be gone under proposed legislation that would end tenure, also known as career status. The bill would instead allow school districts to offer teachers contracts for one, two, three or four years.
Nixon said the loss of tenure would be just one more blow to a profession that is becoming less and less attractive to young people.
“It seems to be just one thing after another. It does have the effect of piling up,” he said. “You have to wonder who you’re going to be able to attract into the profession.”
The bill was proposed by Republican Sen. Phil Berger, the state Senate leader, as part of a package of changes to public education. It has a good chance of becoming law now that Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s office.
Berger said the majority of teachers work hard and do a good job in difficult circumstances.
“But there are some that don’t fit into that category,” Berger said in an interview. “I think it’s a very small percentage. I also think the current law is an impediment to removing those bad teachers from the classrooms.”
One year, 17 dismissals
In 39 states, tenure is considered to be automatic, according to a 2012 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.
But tenure policies are changing in some places. Three states have eliminated it, and nine states now tie tenure decisions to performance of a teacher’s students.
North Carolina has awarded tenure to teachers since 1971.
During the first four years of a teacher’s career, he or she has a contract up for renewal each year. The idea is that poorly performing teachers are weeded out during a probationary period. After the fourth year, the teacher either receives tenure or is out.
Though tenure is viewed by some as a job guarantee, schools can fire teachers. The law spells out 15 acceptable reasons for dismissal, including inadequate performance, immorality, neglect of duty and a reduction in a district’s teaching force.
If school leaders move to fire a teacher, the teacher is entitled to a hearing before a hearing officer. After a decision from the school superintendent, the teacher can request a hearing before the local school board. A final appeal would go to superior court.
“The standard is high and the procedure is exacting,” said Robert Joyce, professor of public law and government at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government.
In 2011-12 in North Carolina, 17 teachers were dismissed, according to a state Department of Public Instruction report on reasons teachers leave employment.
“I was shocked at the small number who were actually dismissed through the current procedure,” Berger said.
But Richard Schwartz, a Raleigh lawyer who represents school boards in cases of teacher dismissals, said the numbers are misleading. Dismissal is extremely rare, he said, but there’s a good explanation for that.
“Instead, what happens is teachers resign rather than go through that,” Schwartz said. “School systems have gotten very, very good at effectively removing poorly performing teachers. ... The overwhelming majority of these cases get resolved without going to a hearing.”
The DPI report said 147 teachers reported resigning to avoid being dismissed. An additional 1,018 resigned without saying why.
Counseled to leave
Changes in the tenure law in 1998 required schools to adopt plans that led to much better proof of a teacher’s inadequate performance.
A new teacher evaluation process has also improved documentation, Schwartz said.
There is no clamor among school leaders to drop tenure, he said.
“There’s much more of a problem with people’s long-held beliefs and perceptions about tenure,” he said, “than there is with what’s really going on with school systems across the state.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson agreed that the numbers don’t tell the story.
“In conversation with principals and superintendents across the state, we know that teachers who are ineffective are being counseled out of the profession,” she said.
The N.C. School Boards Association wants to eliminate tenure for future teachers, said Leanne Winner, director of government relations.
“It is very costly to go through the process, and it is very time-consuming,” she said of the dismissal procedure. “We don’t have any other employees who have rights like this.”
But unlike Berger, the association wants to see current teachers grandfathered into the law, Winner said.
It’s unclear whether tenure can be considered a property right; stripping tenure from teachers could be problematic.
“Legally it’s not settled as to whether we can even do it and whether it would stand up to a court challenge,” Winner said. “We know there is a strong likelihood of a lawsuit against the state or a local school system or both.”
Then there’s the issue of morale.
At a time when North Carolina’s teacher pay ranks 46th, and behind only West Virginia and Mississippi in the Southeast, Atkinson said teachers don’t need one more burden.
“It’s a symbolic message,” she said of the bill. “I agree with Sen. Berger that most of our teachers will get another contract and they will continue teaching – unless they move to Tennessee or South Carolina or Georgia where they can get a higher teaching salary.”
Joyce, of UNC CH’s School of Government, said the tenure law originally came about “to protect teachers from all sorts of illegitimate considerations in dismissing them.”
Teacher advocates say that’s important when there is a conflict with a principal or when teachers face political pressure to teach certain things, or not teach them.
Diane Ravitch, a national figure in education policy analysis, was in Raleigh this month and criticized Berger’s bill.
“Without tenure, it means there will be parts of this state where teachers might be afraid to mention the word ‘evolution’ because they might be fired,” she said in a speech sponsored by N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal public policy organization.
“They’ll be afraid to teach ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ They’ll be afraid to teach global warming. They’ll be afraid to teach anything controversial because their job hangs in the balance, and the balance is don’t make the parents angry.”
In proposing his education changes in 2012, Berger referred to a “Report Card on American Education” by the American Legislative Exchange Council. The report gave North Carolina a D+ in overall teacher quality and a D in removing ineffective teachers.
The council, known as ALEC, provides model legislation promoting conservative ideas and has been controversial. Berger said he looked at what other states are doing with tenure but said ALEC “did not talk to me about it.”
He said the current system leads to unfairness that is bad for schools – and for teachers. That’s why he wants to end tenure and move to merit pay, he said.
“I’m not so sure that you don’t already create a morale problem when you have a situation where you have many teachers who are working hard, who are doing a good job, and you have some who are not pulling their weight and not capable of doing that,” he said.
“And yet their pay is exactly the same because the only way pay is differentiated is based on years of service or advanced degrees or possibly the National Board Certification.”
Nixon, the Wendell teacher, said the career status provision provided an unspoken contract with the state. As long as teachers did a good job, they could count on continued employment.
“When you go into teaching, you know you’re not going to make a lot of money,” he said. “When I went into teaching 34 years ago, the message was, ‘The state’s going to take care of you.’ ”
Now, he said, “The basic message of the bill to teachers is that, ‘You guys are doing a bad job and we want to get rid of you.’ ”
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