- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

June 3

The News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, on teacher tenure:

Amen. That’s what the North Carolina Court of Appeals had to say about an earlier ruling from Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood that Republican legislators were out of bounds in 2013 when they approved a phase-out that would have abolished teacher tenure in North Carolina by 2018.

Hobgood said in his ruling in a suit filed by teachers that a retroactive abolition of tenure violated the United States Constitution’s contract clause and was “an unconstitutional taking of plaintiffs’ property rights in their existing contract.”

On Tuesday, a panel of the state Court of Appeals agreed, thus inflicting another setback for GOP lawmakers who have undercut traditional public education by encouraging an increase in charter schools and even vouchers that allow some parents to receive public funds to send their kids to private schools.

Hobgood, by the way, is also the judge who ruled the voucher program unconstitutional because it sends public funds to private schools.

The tenure issue is one that Republicans put into play in part because the state teachers’ association has been critical of some GOP policies on public education. And some Republican lawmakers cast “teacher tenure” as some sort of feathery nest that allows bad teachers to hang on to their jobs forever.

But the “tenure” term really isn’t accurate when it comes to a reasonable benefit that North Carolina’s underpaid and overworked teachers have.

For one thing, the security afforded those veteran teachers who have earned this short-handed version of tenure, which more accurately is called “career status,” isn’t lifetime job security or even comparable to the benefits a college professor has on achieving tenure.

Rather, career status means that if a teacher is to be fired, he or she has the right to a hearing. It’s a benefit granted to teachers who complete their four-year probationary period in good standing.

What career status doesn’t mean, though it’s what some legislators would like people to think it means, is absolute protection from dismissal. Bad teachers still can be fired. And everyone in the public school system, in addition to any lawmakers who really want the straight facts, knows it.

The attempt to take away career status has been a waste of time, a punitive act on the part of Republican lawmakers who seem to have public education in their bull’s-eye, even though public schools remain the choice for the vast majority of North Carolina families.

So now a higher court has said Hobgood was right.

Appeals Court Judge Linda Stephens called career status “a fundamental part of the bargain” that teachers “accepted when they decided to defer the pursuit of potentially more lucrative professions, as well as the opportunity to work in states that offer better financial compensation to members of their own profession, in order to accept employment in our public schools.”

That’s a firm and stern statement from a respected judge that could be interpreted as suggesting that North Carolina is getting a better deal than it deserves from its teachers. Lawmakers ought to be grateful, not critical, of these public educators.

Though teacher salaries, particularly for beginning teachers, have improved, North Carolina still lags near the bottom of national rankings in teacher pay. And beyond better pay, teachers have long sought and have long deserved more respect for what they do. The Republicans in the legislature have given them anything but, and should that attitude continue to dominate, the state will be looking for ways to fill what surely is coming, a teacher shortage of painful proportion.

Instead, let us respect and support the good teachers, and that’s most of them, who toil in the state’s classrooms because they love helping young people expand their horizons. They are due the benefits they have, and then some.

Online:

https://www.newsobserver.com

____

June 3

News and Record, Greensboro, North Carolina, on a better election:

State Supreme Court Justice Robert Edmunds from Greensboro is up for re-election next year. He could be the first justice to run in a retention election instead of a contested race, if the legislature approves a bill making the innovative change.

The measure passed the House in April and the Senate Monday. Because the Senate altered it, the House must vote again.

The bill would allow an elected Supreme Court justice seeking another term to stand for a retention election if he or she chooses.

Edmunds, who was first elected in 2000, “would strongly consider it,” he said Monday.

Why wouldn’t he? An experienced jurist should prefer to run on his record rather than against an opponent.

Court elections are troubling. Judges should be impartial, nonpartisan arbiters of legal disputes, not politicians. Elections force them to raise money, run TV ads and campaign at events attended by candidates for the legislature, or sheriff or governor. Voters want to know how they feel about gun control or the death penalty or abortion - but they can’t say because an answer would prejudice their judgment in a case that might come before them. Everyone who appears in court deserves to have her case heard by an open-minded judge.

The North Carolina Bar Association supports the change to retention elections, its president, Raleigh attorney Catharine Arrowood, said Monday. Although the bill doesn’t offer a comprehensive reform, it would let voters experience retention elections and promote statewide dialogue about possible further changes.

The House bill covered the seven-member Supreme Court and the 15-judge Court of Appeals. The Senate removed the Court of Appeals. It’s not certain the House will accept that deletion. It approved the bill by a narrow margin in the first place, with Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the question. Guilford House members John Blust, Pricey Harrison and Jon Hardister voted yes; John Faircloth, Ralph Johnson and Cecil Brockman voted no.

Some court reformers pushed for a system of merit selection and retention election. This bill lets the voters take care of the “merit selection.” But once a justice has been elected by the people, he or she could serve as long as voters choose to retain him or her every eight years. There is a mandatory retirement age of 72.

If a justice were voted out, the governor would appoint a replacement to serve only until the next regular election. At that point, any eligible candidate could run for the seat.

This system would not necessarily stop outside groups from spending millions of dollars to unseat a judge. But that would be less likely, because those groups wouldn’t know who the next justice would be.

Supporters of a sitting justice couldn’t run a negative campaign because there would be no opposing candidate to attack.

There might be justices who haven’t performed well and should be voted out. That could still happen. But this bill makes it less likely that members of our state’s highest court would be chosen in high-dollar political campaigns. It is well worth a try.

Online:

https://www.greensboro.com

____

May 25

Charlotte Observer on bills known as “ag-gag” laws, because they protect agricultural operations:

Let’s say your elderly mother lives in a nursing home. The employees’ treatment of some of the residents is atrocious: They berate them; they refuse to change soiled sheets; they handle them roughly.

An appalled worker secretly uses her smartphone to film the mistreatment and uses the video to expose the wrongdoing.

She’s a hero, right? Not to N.C. legislators. To them, she’s disloyal, and is liable to the nursing home owner for damages.

One would think that lawmakers would clamp down on illegal activity at businesses. Instead, they are clamping down on those who would expose it.

Only Gov. Pat McCrory can fix this now. House Bill 405 passed the Senate last week and now sits in McCrory’s inbox. He should veto it.

The bill says that an employee who uncovers damaging activity by taking video or making a recording, or taking or copying documents, can face severe penalties for hurting the business: “equitable relief,” compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees and “exemplary damages” of $5,000 per day.

That’s for action that damages the business owner. The bill makes no mention of the business’s action that damages the public.

The intent of the bill was made clear when Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, offered an amendment. He would have given employees protection if the activity they recorded was illegal. Senate leaders wouldn’t even allow a vote on that.

Such anti-whistleblower laws are making their way through conservative legislatures across the country. They are frequently known as “ag-gag” laws, because they protect agricultural operations - such as poultry plants and hog farms - from do-gooder employees. North Carolina’s bill is even worse in that it encompasses all businesses, such as day cares and nursing homes, not just agricultural plants.

This bill is flawed for many reasons. It punishes the person who reveals the illegal act, rather than the business that commits it. It smears everyone with the same brush of suspicion, including those responsible businesses who play by the rules. And it raises constitutional questions, limiting a person’s free speech rights based on the content of the speech, even if it’s truthful.

Supporters of the bill say it protects businesses from activist groups who could have an undercover employee reveal damaging information. This, though, goes further than protecting trade secrets or other private information. Current law already protects such things. This bill targets those who reveal illegal activity that could harm workers or the public. We should instead be encouraging such revelations.

Most North Carolinians and scrupulous business owners oppose this bill. Gov. McCrory should ship it back to the legislature.

___

Online:

https://www.charlotteobserver.com

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