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N.C. Law Revoking Tenure for New Principals Upsets Teachers

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A new North Carolina law revoking tenure for newly hired principals has polarized education groups and sent ripples of anxiety through the state's public schools.

The measure, approved by the legislature in June, will take effect in 1995. Principals who are currently employed will retain their tenure rights unless they move to another school system.

Backers of the measure, who have been pushing for it for several years, say easing the process for removing principals will strengthen accountability in the schools and aid the state's ongoing education-reform efforts.

The legislation is a "positive move'' that will improve student performance, said Rep. Anne C. Barnes, the chairwoman of the House education committee.

But critics, including the state teachers' organization, contend that ending tenure will undermine principals' ability to innovate, while also endangering teachers' job guarantees.

Although supporters deny that the law will necessarily lead to an increase in dismissals, it is expected to have a wide potential impact. Nearly 40 percent of the state's principals have more than 25 years' experience, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association. As members of that large group retire after 1995, they will be replaced by administrators without tenure protections.

As a result, half of the state's 1,100 principals are expected within five years to be contract employees subject to periodic removal.

While a similar measure failed last year, the bill this year garnered wide legislative support because it was coupled with a comprehensive program to improve standards, train principals, and create an educational-leadership academy for administrators, Ms. Barnes said.

The bill was endorsed by Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.

Passage of the measure made North Carolina one of a handful of states in recent years that have revoked tenure for new principals in an effort to bolster school reform.

Although nearly all states provide some form of tenure for teachers, only 18 states currently offer job guarantees to principals, according to Paul Hersey, the director of professional assistance at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Strengthening Superintendents

Tenure repeal will "strengthen the hand of the chief administrator,'' said Gene Causby, the executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, which has sought the change for several years.

The new system will create responsiveness in school officials who have been resistant to reform, he said.

"An administrator comes in and wants to do school reform, and the principals say, 'That's fine and good, but we were here when you got here, and we'll be here when you're gone,''' Mr. Causby said. "That kind of attitude is universal.''

Opponents of the bill fear that erosion of principal tenure is a slippery slope that will eventually lead to elimination of teachers' job protections.

Critics also say the guarantee is more than just job protection.

"Tenure is the first line of defense in academic freedom,'' said John Wilson, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators. "They have made our future administrators vulnerable to school boards who change with each ideology.''

The measure will also threaten the "collegial atmosphere'' the schools have with teachers, parents, and the community, Mr. Wilson warned, and will limit principals' freedom to take risks, act creatively, and resist the mainstream.

No Arbitrary Dismissal

The legislation repealed a 1974 tenure law that allowed principals to be fired only for such reasons as immorality, alcohol abuse, criminal conviction, and advocating the overthrow of the government.

While discarding the old system, the new law establishes procedures that backers say will insure that principals are treated fairly.

The law states that school administrators may not be dismissed "for arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, personal, or political reasons.''

The measure also gives principals the right to appeal their firing. But Mr. Wilson argued that the new law will make appeals more difficult for principals, by placing the burden of proof on them to show that they were wrongly dismissed.

Principals from across the state have been calling the N.C.E.A. to express their concerns about the bill's repercussions, Mr. Wilson said, adding that the group plans to provide legal services for principals who "run into problems.''

The N.C.E.A. has already raised $100,000 for a campaign fund "to make sure we elect people who are for the rights of public employees,'' he noted.

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