Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mooneyham: Teacher tenure under fire

Whether or not you believe teacher tenure laws in North Carolina need reform, it has become apparent that the changes passed by state legislators last year included a fatal flaw.

They required the cooperation of teachers, school administrators and school boards.

Those groups have not been very inclined to cooperate.

The law sought to replace teacher tenure protections – what educators here call “career status” – with contracts running as long as four years. To get there, school administrators were to identify the top 25 percent of teachers based on their job performance. Those teachers were to be offered bonuses totaling $5,000 over time in exchange for giving up tenure for new four-year contracts.

Instead, school boards have balked, school administrators have complained, and teachers have protested. All have sued.

Teachers obviously don't want their tenure protections to disappear, believing that the contract employment system envisioned by lawmakers could politicize personnel decisions.

Administrators complain that identifying some teachers and not others for bonuses will create morale problems at schools, that the 25-percent figure is arbitrary, and that more teachers are deserving.

It's not clear that state Senate leaders, who came up with the plan, are buying the arguments.

What is clear is that they are beginning to recognize the flaw, that the current reform requires that the teachers and their bosses at least move along grudgingly and accept the changes.

Without that happening, state legislators have started to talk about revisiting the reforms.

That talk follows comments by Gov. Pat McCrory that he would like lawmakers to take another stab at it.

Discussions have taken place about expanding the 25-percent bonus eligibility cap, but don't be surprised to see any real alterations to the law veer away from that topic.

After all, expanding the number of teachers eligible for bonuses won’t end the core criticism from teachers, that the reform is unneeded and will increase personnel politics at schools.

That the lawmakers who pushed for the elimination of teacher tenure don’t see it this way also means that they are unlikely to back away from the idea of employing teachers on a contract basis.

What they may do instead is move away from the need for teacher and administrator cooperation.

One way to do that, perhaps without invoking a new round of protest from teachers, is to apply to changes to new hires only, gradually phasing out tenure over a 30-year period.

That won't eliminate the controversy. Supporters of the current tenure laws will argue that putting new hires on contracts will discourage people from entering the profession. The lawsuits also may not go away.

But elected officials who want to remain elected probably won't continue to face the wrath of an entire profession.

Right now, that profession sees state lawmakers as robbing them of something that was promised when they chose to become teachers.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of the NC Insider.