In a unanimous decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court last week agreed with two lower courts that state lawmakers had violated the constitutional rights of veteran teachers when they retroactively stripped them of their tenure protections.
In 2013—during the first legislative session after Republicans took control of both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office for the first time since Reconstruction—lawmakers pushed through legislation that would phase out job protections for all teachers by 2018. The state’s teachers’ union swiftly challenged the law.
The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that taking tenure away from teachers who had already earned it violated the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling means that while those teachers will maintain their tenure rights, however, teachers hired since the law went into effect still don’t have a route to “career status.” Newer teachers work under contracts that schools may terminate for any reason that isn’t “arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, for personal or political reasons or on any basis prohibited by state or federal law.” Fired teachers can appeal to local school boards.
In a case that has parallels to Vergara v. California and similar lawsuits, the attorneys arguing for the anti-tenure law contended it was necessary for protecting students from ineffective teachers in the classroom. In his opinion, Justice Bob Edmunds said that the defendants had failed to establish the connection.
“While we acknowledge that the retroactive repeal was motivated by the General Assembly’s valid concern for flexibility in dismissing low-performing teachers, we do not see how repealing career status from those for whom that right had already vested was necessary and reasonable,” Edmunds wrote.
Moving forward Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said they would turn their attention to making sure that the state does a better job retaining good teachers, The News & Observer reported.
“I believe that we need to focus on recruiting and retaining the best teachers for our classrooms and great teachers should be rewarded for their work,” Moore said in a statement. “We need to continue to push for policies that allow local school administrators to remove teachers that consistently underperform.”
After the original trial court judge declared the law unconstitutional, North Carolina Republicans—in addition to appealing the case up to the state’s highest court—also tried to get teachers to voluntarily give up job protections in exchange for pay raises, a plan that ultimately failed.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.