RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on whether legislators can strip away a key benefit for low-paid teachers - job security rules in place for 45 years.
The case involves a 2013 law passed by the General Assembly and whether it violated the rights of teachers who had qualified for protection under workplace rules blocking administrators from arbitrarily firing those they didn’t like. Teachers who passed four years of probation and earned “career status” still can be fired for reasons including poor performance, immorality and insubordination.
The tenure law repeal was blocked by lower courts from taking effect. Legislators wanted its repeal to improve teacher quality by forcing educators to earn new employment contracts every few years, said lawyers working for Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is defending the majority-Republican Legislature’s action.
Once career status was earned, it amounted to “perpetual employment” by making teachers too difficult to discharge, said John Maddrey, Cooper’s top appeals lawyer.
“There is clearly a legitimate interest of the state in improving the educational opportunities for our public school students by increasing teacher quality,” Maddrey said. “In furtherance of that, the Legislature fairly may proceed as it sees fit.”
Justices quizzed Maddrey on how stripping teachers of an offered job benefit they earned through years of service differed from retirement benefits promised to state employees. Groups representing current and retired state government workers, worried that benefits promised to tens of thousands of members could be threatened, urged the court to reject the tenure law’s repeal.
The justices should see the case in light of earlier state Supreme Court rulings reversing efforts to take away promised retiree benefits, said Narendra Ghosh, an attorney representing the North Carolina Association of Educators.
While the state can’t unilaterally take benefits away from workers who’ve already earned them, it can change the pay and other employment terms offered new employees, Ghosh said. That’s what lawmakers did in the 1990s, when they took away similar job protections from principals and other administrators, Ghosh said.
If lawmakers were most concerned with weeding out ineffective teachers, they could have raised performance expectations teachers would be required to meet to keep their jobs. Tenure also doesn’t guarantee teachers a lifetime job, Ghosh said, since their positions can be eliminated due to a lack of money or other reasons.
North Carolina ranked 47th in the country for average salaries for public school teachers, according to the most recent estimate by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no special certifications is due to make $35,000 during the current academic year, while 20-year veterans get $46,500 a year, state records show.
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