State Politics

Teacher tenure fight goes to NC high court

North Carolina teachers will get a show of support on Monday from police organizations and retired state workers as their fight to keep tenure goes to the state’s highest court.

The N.C. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Monday in a legal dispute over public-school teacher pay and policy reforms from 2013 that led to protest marches and rallies in the state capital.

At issue is whether a plan to phase out tenure adopted in 2013 amounted to an illegal taking of contract and property rights.

The N.C. Court of Appeals found that to be the case in a 2-1 ruling in June 2015 that buoyed the hopes of teachers and created an obstacle for Republicans pushing an end to tenure as part of an education-reform agenda.

Judge Linda Stephens wrote the majority opinion for the N.C. Court of Appeals. For the past four decades, Stephens stated in the opinion, the “career status,” or tenure, section of the law governing teacher and principal employment contracts “have been a fundamental part of the bargain” that thousands of teachers across the state “accepted when they decided to defer the pursuit of potentially more lucrative professions, as well as the opportunity to work in states that offer better financial compensation to members of their own profession, in order to accept employment in our public schools.”

Attorneys for the Retired Governmental Employees’ Association, State Employees Association of North Carolina and Southern States and North Carolina Police Benevolent Associations made similar arguments in so called “friend of the court” briefs, or shows of support from groups with similar interests.

“State law enforcement officers accepted employment with the understanding that although they would not get rich, they could earn basic job security provided by the State Personnel Act,” J. Michael McGuinness, an attorney from Elizabethtown, wrote for the law enforcement organization. “Under established law, once the State uses the promise of valuable employment protections to recruit employees and allows those protections to vest, it may not unilaterally strip employees of their rights.”

If the state lawmakers persuade the N.C. Supreme Court “to change course,” McGuinness added, “these officers will have built their lives and careers around a false promise.”

Retired state workers also expressed similar worries.

But in a court document laying out the state’s planned arguments to the N.C. justices on Monday, John Maddrey, solicitor general with the N.C. Attorney General’s office, argued that such conclusions robbed the General Assembly of accomplishing a policy goal.

“This court has never held that all public ‘employment benefits’ amount to contractual promises by the State,” Maddrey contended in a document submitted to the N.C. Supreme Court on Jan. 4. “A fair reading of the statute at issue reveals that there is no legislative guarantee of perpetual employment for career status teachers.”

Furthermore, Maddrey contended, the teachers and organizations that challenged the 2013 law “misapprehend the State’s legitimate interest in increasing educational quality by conflating ‘adequate’ teachers with teachers that are ‘effective.’”

In previous court filings and hearings, the teachers and organizations that challenged the law have provided sworn statements from current school administrators and employees who expressed “satisfaction” with the system of teacher performance review that has remained in place while the 2013 law is on trial in the courts.

“Indeed, instead of acknowledging the recognized problems of North Carolina’s public schools,” Maddrey said, the law’s challengers “assert a well-functioning system in which performance problems are being appropriately addressed.”

Teachers who have earned “career status,” which comes only after a four-year probationary period, still can be fired for reasons including poor performance, immorality and insubordination. Having tenure provides teachers an avenue for challenging job termination or demotion. They can go before a local school board and have a special hearing.

“They claim that ‘school administrators have had no difficulty securing the career teacher’s removal,’ remarkably asserting that in the ‘vast majority’ of cases, performance issues are ‘resolved with the teacher agreeing to resign,’” Maddrey added. “Plaintiffs’ advocacy for maintaining the status quo does not override the State’s fundamental constitutional interest in improving the opportunity for a sound, basic education by increasing teacher quality.”

Justices typically hear arguments in such cases and issue rulings weeks or months later.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1