Welcome ruling on tenure

May. 18, 2014 @ 05:52 PM

Last week was another good one for public school teachers and their allies who oppose the dismantling of North Carolina’s four-decade-old career status protection for teachers.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that would phase out career status completely by 2018 and mandated that school districts offer what they deemed the top 25 percent of their teachers $5,000 raises over the course of new four-year contracts – in exchange for giving up career status immediately.

Since 1972, state law has conferred career status – also and somewhat confusingly referred to as tenure – on teachers who successfully complete a four-year probationary period.  Unlike tenure in the academic setting, where it virtually guarantees lifetime employment barring egregious misconduct, North Carolina’s career status says teachers can be dismissed or demoted for immorality, insubordination or poor performance.

That last is critical because it belies the charges of career-status opponents that it protects poor teachers. The law does require hearings and due process, but capable administrators at the school and district level do move to sever persistently underperforming teachers. Less capable administrators may lack the will or skill to do so, but that is another issue entirely.

Judge Hobgood ruled that the career status was a property right conferred on veteran teachers, and that the state constitution prohibits elimination of that right. He immediately enjoined the state from proceeding with its elimination or requiring the 25-percent selections for raises and new contracts.

Ending tenure "was not reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose," Hobgood ruled.

His ruling dovetailed with an earlier ruling by Special Superior Court Judge Richard Doughton that the Durham and Guilford school boards did not have to implement the 25-percent selections. The districts had sued to block the law’s enforcement. Hobgood, in his ruling, argued legislators had given school administrators "no discernable, workable standards" to decide which teachers to place in the top 25 percent. 

Hobgood’s ruling, while welcome, is at best a partial success for teachers and their allies – and, of course, could be overturned in the appeals process. While Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has not decided whether to appeal, the legislature last year gave its leaders authority to pursue appeals of such rulings on their own if the attorney general declines. Senate leader Phil Berger made clear Hobgood’s decision will be appealed.

And the ruling leaves the legislature free to end career status going forward, for teachers who have not yet achieved it and for those hired in the future. Hobgood specifically rejected a challenge by Chapel Hill-Carrboro teacher Brian Link. Link has not yet earned tenure but is on track to do so. The judge upheld the state’s argument that Link could not legally sue over its elimination, the News and Record of Greensboro reported.

But Hobgood’s welcome ruling has offered some relief from what many, this page included, have seen as an assault on the state’s public school teachers, and may help stem plummeting morale and growing difficulty in attracting new teachers.