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by Tim Walker (NEA)
May 16, 2014 - A judge in North Carolina ruled on Friday that the state’s repeal of due process protections for teachers was unconstitutional. The ruling, by Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood, rejected the state’s argument that stripping career status for educators “was reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.”
Six classroom teachers, supported by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and National Education Association (NEA), filed the suit against the law on December 17, 2013. Passed by the General Assembly last year and championed by Governor Pat McCrory, it would have phased out career status and replaced it in 2018 with contracts running as long as four years. School administrators were also to identify the top 25 percent of teachers and offer them salary bonuses over time in exchange for surrendering their due process rights and opting in to the four-year contract immediately. Judge Hobgood also halted implementation of this provision.
NCAE President Rodney Ellis praised the ruling.
“The court said teachers should be protected from politics in the classroom,” Ellis said. “The administrators and teachers whose depositions were part of this lawsuit gave powerful testimony to the importance of due process and reasonable job protections. Clearly the people who are the most passionate about public education—teachers and school leaders—have been heard by the courts.”
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel also applauded the court’s decision to strike down what he called a “misguided initiative.”
“The new law would have only forced teachers to give up these very basic protections and further undermined the ability of districts to recruit and retain high quality teachers,” Van Roekel said.
Teachers in North Carolina have long pointed out that they have never been granted “tenure.” Those who have taught for four years at a proficient level are granted career status, which provides a limited measure of job protection and due process to ensure fair treatment if facing dismissal or demotion proceedings. Teachers in the state can be dismissed for any number of reasons.
Educators were hardly alone in their opposition. Many school boards and administrators also balked, knowing that providing North Carolina teachers with due process protections prior to dismissal in no way prevented districts from staffing schools with competent and caring educators and improving school quality.
Veteran teacher Rich Nixon, one of the six plaintiffs in the suit, said the drumbeat against due process was started by lawmakers who are more determined to silence teacher voices than improve public education.
“No one has ever told me, ‘You know, if we get rid of career status, schools will be a lot better off,” Nixon recalls. “This was the crux of the state’s case – that stripping what they call tenure was critically important to help improve schools. The court did not buy that argument.”
“The good guys won one today,” Nixon said. “It’s heartening that the court could see that the legislature’s actions haven’t exactly been above board.”
In addition to taking legal action, North Carolina educators were proactive in educating the public about the realities surrounding teachers’ job status and protections. NCAE launched the “Decline to Sign” campaign to urge its members who might fall into the pool of the 25 percent not to accept the four-year contract and to encourage local school boards to pass resolutions in opposition of the contract.
In a state where education funding has been slashed and teacher pay ranks 46th in the nation, NEA President Van Roekel urged North Carolina lawmakers to direct their attention to those issues that will actually help improve schools. “We’re at risk of losing an entire generation of students who won’t get a second chance. 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,” Van Roekel said.