Victory: North Carolina Supreme Court rules tenure repeal unconstitutional

Today, the North Carolina Supreme Court unanimously held that the General Assembly’s 2013 repeal of teacher tenure violated teachers’ rights under the United States Constitution.  The ruling restores the rights of teachers who earned tenure before July  26, 2013.

Patterson Harkavy attorneys Narendra Ghosh and Burton Craige represented the plaintiffs, a group of North Carolina teachers and the North Carolina Association of Educators.

For over forty years, North Carolina public school teachers have been able to earn “career status” after successful completion of a four-year probationary period and a favorable vote by a teacher’s school board.  A teacher with career status can only be demoted or dismissed for good cause, and had the right to a hearing in which he or she could contest a dismissal or demotion decision.  All of North Carolina’s neighboring states provide teachers a comparable system of basic employment protections.

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation stripping teachers of these employment protections.  Under the new system, teachers will be employed under one-, two-, or four-year contracts.  When a school board fails to renew an experienced teacher’s contract, the new system denies that teacher any right to a hearing challenging that decision.  Veteran teachers with career status will be stripped of that status as of July 1, 2018; teachers who have yet to earn career status will never be able to receive it, and will be employed on one-year contracts until 2018.

Patterson Harkavy filed suit in December of 2013, challenging the constitutionality of the repeal.  The State failed to produce any evidence indicating that the repeal of career status was necessary to accomplish any public purpose.  In contrast, Patterson Harkavy produced the affidavits of school administrators who consistently discussed how career status was not a barrier to removing bad teachers, but instead helped schools attract and retain good teachers despite their low salaries.  In Spring of 2014, Judge Hobgood ruled that the repeal violated the United States Constitution’s Contracts Clause and the North Carolina Constitution’s Law of the Land Clause as it applied to teachers who had already earned career status.  The Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Hobgood’s opinion.

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously reached the same conclusion.  The Court recognized that although the state claimed it repealed tenure to alleviate difficulties in dismissing ineffective teachers, “no evidence indicates that such a problem existed.” It noted that the record was “replete with affidavits from teachers and administrators who relate that the Career Status Law did not impede their ability to dismiss teachers who failed to meet the academic standards necessary properly to educate students in public schools. Instead, these affiants indicate that the Career Status Law was an important incentive in recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers.”

Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for North Carolina’s teachers who have already earned career status.  It is also a victory for North Carolina’s students and families.  The state’s best teachers could easily find employment in other states for significantly higher pay.  By protecting experienced teachers’ right to employment protections, today’s ruling provides some incentive for our best teachers to continue teaching North Carolina’s students.

The Supreme Court’s opinion can be accessed by clicking here.