Last year, teachers got a big win when a Wake County Superior Court judge struck down part of a 2013 law that would have stripped tenure from educators who had already received it.
But Judge Robert H. Hobgood allowed another piece of the law to remain, which prevents probationary teachers who are on track to receive tenure, formally known as “career status,” from securing what they see as an important job protection that affords them due process rights.
On Thursday attorneys on behalf of the North Carolina Association of Educators came before the Court of Appeals to argue that all teachers deserve the right to earn career status. Without providing probationary teachers with the prospect of these job protections, they further argued, it will be difficult to attract and retain high quality teachers–especially in light of the low salaries the state offers to them.
The state also appealed Judge Hobgood’s ruling Thursday, contesting his decision that the General Assembly’s move to strip teachers of their career status was an unconstitutional revocation of a property right.
Proponents of teacher tenure say that it is not a guarantee of a job– rather, it is a guarantee of due process rights. If a career status teacher is up for dismissal or demotion, she has a right to a hearing by a neutral third party who would sift through the evidence to determine whether or not the employment action was based on sound evidence.
In 2013, lawmakers passed a budget bill that abolished career status and instead offered teachers temporary contracts. The legislation touched off an uproar among teachers and prompted dozens of school districts to pass resolutions denouncing the new law.
Sen. Phil Berger, the champion of that legislation, said the intention was to “get rid of a system that rewards mediocrity and punishes excellence by granting unlimited job security to all who teach a few years.”
By 2018, career status would have been a thing of the past for all teachers–and in the meantime, there would have been a phase-out process that would have tried to entice 25 percent of the state’s career status teachers to give up their tenure early in exchange for four-year contracts that came with small pay bonuses.
The legislature’s actions prompted the North Carolina Association of Educators to take the state to court last year, arguing that stripping teachers of their tenure was a violation of a constitutionally guaranteed property right.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood sided with the teachers in part, ruling that the General Assembly’s actions were unconstitutional with regard to those teachers who had already received career status by July 2013.
But Judge Hobgood left teachers who had not yet received career status by then out of his decision, meaning that those who were in the pipeline toward tenure and any new teachers going forward could not look forward to due process rights as an employment benefit.
Judge Martha Geer, one of three judges hearing arguments Thursday at the Court of Appeals, seemed wary of the state’s claim that teachers who worked under 1, 3 or 4 year contracts would enjoy the same protections as teachers with career status.
“It [putting teachers on temporary contracts] is taking away … career status, isn’t it,” queried Judge Geer.
Special Deputy Attorney General Melissa L. Trippe asserted that there were a number of due process safeguards in place for teachers on temporary contracts, and so effectively they would enjoy the same employment protections as those who are tenured.
But Judge Geer pressed on, saying that to her, it seemed that teachers under temporary contracts could be non-renewed for arbitrary and capricious reasons, which differs considerably from employment benefits guaranteed to tenured teachers.
Judge Christopher Dillon jumped in to say that regardless, career status has been determined to be a property right that is constitutionally protected.
“How do we get around …that they have this property,” asked Judge Dillon.
In making their appeal, attorneys for the NCAE argued that failing to extend career status to current probationary teachers and future teachers hurts the state’s ability to recruit teachers.
“Career status protections help attract and retain teachers despite the low salaries established by State salary schedules,” NCAE claimed in their brief.
Judge Linda Stephens made remarks that were sympathetic to NCAE’s argument.
“Well also it’s a question of how in the world are we going to attract better teachers when not only do they…receive extremely low salaries for being teachers in North Carolina, they’ve gotten no raises and now their career status is gone,” said Judge Stephens.
NCAE President Rodney Ellis told reporters at the conclusion of the hearing that the state has a duty to fulfill the commitment it made to its teachers.
“[Teachers] were given an understanding that at some point they would receive due process rights throughout their career,” said Ellis. “Once you begin to eliminate those due process rights, you’re putting them at a disadvantage and you’re impacting whether or not they will even remain in the profession.”
Attorneys for NCAE said they hope to receive a decision from the Court of Appeals in a few months.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-261-1460 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC