Today in North Carolina

Is end of teacher tenure legal?

November 1, 2013 

— From Senate leader Phil Berger’s vantage point, the likelihood of a lawsuit probably comes as no surprise.

Berger has been the primary force behind an effort at the N.C. General Assembly to get rid of teacher tenure in the state.

After two years of talk, the Republican-led legislature approved a measure that drops tenure and its extensive job protections in favor of employment contracts.

Now the state’s largest teacher organization, the N.C. Association of Educators, says it will sue to stop the change.

According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit is likely to argue that forcing existing teachers into the new system violates implied contractual rights to earlier job protections.

Maybe there is something to the argument.

The new plan drawn up by legislators involves a period of transition in which school superintendents identify the top 25 percent of teachers and offer them a $5,000 bonus in exchange for accepting a four-year contract. Perhaps accepting that bonus eliminates any of those rights.

Principals and school administrators, meanwhile, complain they have been left with an impossible challenge in identifying the teacher to whom the bonuses will be offered. They say the result will further undermine teacher morale.

Berger spokeswoman Amy Auth recently discounted the angst.

“Only in the warped world of education bureaucrats and union leaders could a permanent $5,000 pay raise for top-performing teachers be branded as a bad thing,” she said.

Maybe. Or maybe Berger and his fellow lawmakers needed to look for some buy-in in the public school establishment, even if it meant scaling back the plans.

As I’ve noted previously in this column, the Rockingham County Republican makes a good case that the current tenure system creates roadblocks in getting rid of bad teachers.

In 2011-12, just 17 out of 95,000 teachers in the state were fired. Critics of the tenure law also point to cases in which it took months between the beginning and end of the process to dismiss a teacher.

The old tenure law includes requirements for notifications, meetings, hearings and other due-process obligations. Clearly, it takes a lot of time and money to get rid of bad teachers once they enjoy tenure.

School administrators know that. They can’t be happy with the system as it currently exists.

So they might have been enlisted as allies in the effort to come up with something better, something to streamline the process of getting rid of bad teachers but that avoids undermining morale or hints of political hires and promotions.

Instead, they now have a new system that they don’t like; that is turning them into the bad guys.

Berger and supporters of a contract system of teacher employment might argue that principals and schools superintendents inevitably had to the bad guys; that putting more accountability into teacher personnel decisions demanded it.

Before we see whether they were right, we might first see whether the process they created is legal.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.

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