N.C. teacher tenure is weak. That’s why we should keep it.

The Observer editorial board

A 2013 protest against cuts in education spending, one of many reasons N.C. teachers feel underappreciated.
A 2013 protest against cuts in education spending, one of many reasons N.C. teachers feel underappreciated. 2013 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

How hard should it be to fire a teacher?

N.C. lawmakers might again be taking up that question after the N.C. Court of Appeals last week rejected a Republican plan to take tenure away from the state’s veteran teachers.

The ruling struck down a provision of a 2013 law that phased out tenure for educators who already had earned “career status” by completing four consecutive years as a full-time teacher. Doing so was a violation of the contract clause in the U.S. Constitution, the court said, because teachers had agreed to work for N.C. schools in part because tenure was available.

In response to the ruling, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said they are exploring appeal options. A better route is to ask themselves: Is it worth it?

Opponents of tenure have long believed it offers too much protection to bad teachers, but unlike many states, it’s not particularly hard in North Carolina to fire the worst teachers, even after they’ve reached career status. Administrators can dismiss, demote or make N.C. teachers part-time for any of 15 reasons that include inadequate performance, neglect of duty or insubordination. The law requires only that school boards give teachers a hearing in front of an impartial officer.

A more compelling case against tenure is that it limits administrators’ ability to build the cohesive staffs they believe will best serve students. Principals, like any bosses, should have flexibility to demote or dismiss teachers who aren’t awful but don’t fit a school’s or staff’s needs. That’s especially critical in struggling schools.

Educators argue that principals can be political and “play favorites,” but that’s a common complaint among the disgruntled in workplaces. The reality is that bosses don’t tend to fire employees who make them look good. If teachers are doing well in the classroom, principals want to do what they can to keep them around.

So why bother to keep tenure? Because you want to keep teachers, and it’s not easy.

Research published by the Brookings Institute last year showed that only 38 percent of N.C. high performing teachers stayed in their school after their fourth year. Many of those educators are choosing other states – or other careers.

(The same research showed that principals aren’t even taking advantage of the opportunities to fire bad, non-tenured teachers. Before tenure kicked in, lower-performing N.C. teachers remained at schools at similar rates as higher-performing teachers, suggesting that principals are trying to cultivate and improve the teachers they have.)

In a state where educators already feel undercompensated and underappreciated, lawmakers should be reluctant to give them another reason to leave. In fact, until lawmakers are willing to pay N.C. teachers better than most other states, they might want to consider reinstating tenure for potential hires.

If we want the best classrooms for our children, removing the worst teachers is only half the battle. We also want to get and keep the good ones.