The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday ruled unconstitutional a state law that phased out job protections for teachers who had already earned them.
The court, in a unanimous decision, said the law, passed by the General Assembly in 2013, violated the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution. Because of that ruling, the court didn’t consider another claim in the lawsuit by the N.C. Association of Educators – that the law also constituted an illegal taking of property.
“Today is a win for educators, public schools and, most importantly, students,” teachers association President Rodney Ellis said. “The court has heard the voices of teachers that North Carolina should honor its commitment of basic employment rights. We are glad the court recognized the General Assembly’s attempt to strip away rights from teachers as unconstitutional.”
While the ruling prevents the Republican-controlled legislature from taking tenure away from teachers who earned it before the law was passed in July 2013, the state still can withhold this employment protection from teachers hired since then.
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The tenure issue has been part of a string of controversies pitting a conservative majority of the General Assembly against education advocates, and it has been the basis of political spin by Republicans and Democrats over whether legislative actions helped or hurt teachers.
State ranks 42nd
Average teacher pay in North Carolina ranks 42nd nationally. Last year the legislature increased starting teacher pay and gave teachers a one-time bonus of $750.
Republican legislative leaders said they would accept Friday’s ruling.
“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,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement his office released.
House Speaker Tim Moore elaborated on the legislature’s stated goal of making sure the best teachers are retained.
“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,” Moore said in a statement. “We need to continue to push for policies that allow local school administrators to remove teachers that consistently underperform.”
The court’s decision, written by Justice Bob Edmunds, said that dismissing ineffective teachers may be a legitimate goal, but that no evidence was presented showing that ineffective teachers were a problem. In fact, testimony made it clear the previous law didn’t impede schools’ ability to dismiss teachers who failed to meet standards.
“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,” Edmunds wrote.
House Democratic leader Larry Hall of Durham said the litigation was “the latest Republican attack on teachers” and was a waste of state money.
“Continuing to pass unconstitutional laws is fiscally irresponsible,” Hall said in a statement. “This is just one instance of knowingly passing unconstitutional laws and wasting state resources. The legal fees are adding up and taxpayers are footing the bill.”
Tenure, as enacted in 1971 and modified over the years, protected teachers who had been through a probationary period from being fired or demoted except for certain reasons, such as poor performance or insubordination.
After Republicans gained control, the legislature revisited the issue in 2013, when Berger said he had heard too many instances of ineffective teachers and said they should be employed on multiyear contracts. The legislature changed the law to revoke the “career status” of teachers as of July 2018, and to prohibit tenure for those who didn’t have it by the 2013-14 school year.
Teachers are now hired on contracts for terms of one, two or four years. Schools can decline to renew their contracts for any reason deemed not “arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, for personal or political reasons or on any basis prohibited by state or federal law.” Teachers can appeal that decision to the local school board.
The Supreme Court found that the change in law amounted to a “substantial impairment” of a vested benefit that had been promised to tenured teachers.