The N.C. Supreme Court ruled this month on an important constitutional challenge that may shape the future of teacher tenure in the United States. While the national media have focused on a California case upholding teacher tenure there, advocates on each side should instead be focused on Raleigh.
In California, a group of students alleged that teacher tenure allowed “grossly ineffective” teachers to become employed and maintain their employment in school systems. The students’ complaint noted that these hires disproportionally affected pupils in minority and economically disadvantaged communities and violated their equal protection rights.
The California court found that those students had failed to prove that they were more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students. That court wisely limited itself to the “particular constitutional challenge that plaintiffs decided to bring,” suggesting that other constitutional grounds could lead to a different judicial outcome.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has now decided such a case.
Instead of focusing on students’ rights, the N.C. case concerned the contract rights of teachers. Writing for the court, Justice Robert Edmunds found that the state’s repeal of teacher tenure in 2013 violated the constitutional rights of the teachers themselves.
A bit of background is in order. In 2013, N.C. legislators revoked teacher tenure for public school teachers. Those educators who had not achieved this employment protection as of the 2013-2014 academic year could never obtain the protected status. Tenure, called “career status,” would be revoked for all teachers beginning in July 2018.
Within months, the N.C. Association of Educators and a group of instructors filed suit in Wake County Superior Court.
Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the repeal of the teachers’ protected status was unconstitutional. Importantly, the trial court found that even if there was “an actual need for school administrators to have greater latitude to dismiss ineffective career status teachers, that objective could have been accomplished through less drastic means” than the revocation of a teacher’s tenure.
A majority of judges on an N.C. Court of Appeals panel upheld Judge Hobgood’s ruling last summer, writing that parts of the state’s case were “totally baseless” and “wholly unconvincing.” The state appealed and the N.C. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in February.
Justice Edmunds’ opinion found that when a teacher obtained tenure, a contract was formed between that teacher and the local school system. At that point the statehouse could no longer “take away that vested right retroactively in a way that would substantially impair it.”
Justice Edmunds deemed the tenure repeal unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s Contracts Clause. In doing so, the state’s Supreme Court decided the case in such a way that is not solely based on N.C. law but that of the United States. Other courts across the country may find this reasoning persuasive when deciding similar cases, particularly those involving tenured teachers.
As the California appeals court noted, it is the court’s job “merely to determine whether statutes are constitutional, not if they are a good idea.” It would be a good idea for scholars, advocates, and students to turn their attention to Raleigh’s recent case and its implications in North Carolina and throughout the country.
Tobin, a Charlotte native, is a student at Harvard Law and the Kennedy School of Government.