RALEIGH — In a ruling that affects the employment rights of thousands of public school teachers, a judge in Wake County ruled Friday that the state legislature’s move to eliminate teacher tenure is unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ordered a permanent injunction against the implementation of the law that ends career status, known as teacher tenure. The judge’s decision applies statewide to teachers who already have tenure, but not to those who haven’t yet earned it.
Retroactively abolishing tenure for teachers, Hobgood said, violates the contract clause in the U.S. Constitution and “amounts to an unconstitutional taking of plaintiffs’ property rights in their existing contract,” which violates the state constitution.
Hobgood said the legislature’s action harmed teachers’ contracts and “was not reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.”
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, called Hobgood’s ruling activism.
“Today a single Wake County judge suppressed the will of voters statewide who elected representatives to improve public education and reward our best teachers with raises,” Berger’s statement said. “This is a classic case of judicial activism, and we will move quickly to appeal this disappointing decision.”
The case was brought against the state by six teachers and the N.C. Association of Educators. It comes a week after another judge ordered a preliminary injunction favoring the Guilford and Durham school districts, which brought a similar case against the state.
Rodney Ellis, president of the NCAE, said he was overjoyed with the ruling, which means teachers with tenure can keep it, retaining their due process rights.
“It’s huge,” Ellis said. “It’s a huge victory for teachers today.”
The law, passed last year, had directed school districts to offer the top 25 percent of teachers four-year contracts and $500 to relinquish their tenure status. The judge’s order halts the implementation of that provision, which he said had “no discernible, workable standards” to guide local boards and superintendents.
Across the state, more than 50 school boards said they wanted the law to be repealed, and many teachers pledged not to sign contracts in exchange for the promised salary boost.
Jennifer Canada, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said his office would review the judge’s written order before deciding whether to appeal. The judge’s written order could be filed next week.
Since 1971, North Carolina teachers who made it beyond the first four years of a probationary period were granted tenure, which gave them certain protections, including the right to a hearing in the event of dismissal. Berger and other Republicans said tenure was an impediment to firing incompetent teachers.
Berger had cited low numbers of teachers being dismissed. A 2012-13 teacher turnover survey showed that only 17 teachers statewide were dismissed. However, the report said 87 teachers resigned to avoid dismissal and 294 resigned for unknown reasons. That year, 175 probationary teachers’ contracts were not renewed.
Ending tenure would have meant that eventually all teachers would be employed on contracts without some due process protections. According to the Department of Public Instruction, about 57,000 of 95,000 teachers have tenure.
“It’s a means for protecting teachers from unfair dismissals,” Ellis said of career status. “It’s a means by which we can avoid school politics impacting employment in our schools for teachers ... It does not guarantee you a right to a job for life. But instead, it just awards you an opportunity to actually go through a process, a fair hearing process, before you’re dismissed.”
Jamie Lemmond, a teacher at Wendell’s East Wake High School with seven years’ experience in North Carolina, said tenure has just become a political skirmish.
“I don’t think (teacher tenure) should be very important,” Lemmond said. “If you ask most good teachers if they’d rather have tenure or a pay raise, they would swap tenure for a pay raise every time. In the end, tenure only protects bad teachers. The tricky part of that is to define bad teachers.”
‘Focus on what helps’
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel issued a statement saying the North Carolina legislature’s attempt to eliminate tenure was misguided and would have hurt the ability of districts to recruit high quality teachers.
“Teachers give up a great deal in terms of status and compensation by choosing to devote their careers to instructing students,” Van Roekel’s statement said. “In North Carolina, teachers already are paid less than the national average — and less than teachers employed in neighboring states. ... We need to focus on what helps students the most, like supporting new teachers, providing ongoing training, paying teachers a decent salary, and developing reliable evaluation systems to measure teacher effectiveness.”
Erlene Lyde, vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said she was pleased and not surprised by the ruling.
“Now the legislature can take the money set aside for the 25 percent contracts and add another 2-3 percentage points to the pay raise proposal,” said Lyde, a high school teacher.
News & Observer staff writer Aaron Moody and The Charlotte Observer’s Ann Doss Helms contributed to this report.