Earlier this week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Patterson Harkavy’s clients, finding that the state’s 2013 repeal of teacher tenure violated the North Carolina Constitution and the United States Constitution.
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, representing several North Carolina teachers and the North Carolina Association of Educators, filed suit in December of 2013, challenging the constitutionality of the repeal. 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. 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.
Yesterday, the Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Hobgood’s order in full. The Court recognized that its ruling was consistent with the North Carolina Supreme Court’s “pattern of refusing to allow the State to renege on its statutory promises, after decades of representing the valuable employment benefits conferred by those statutes as inducements to public employment.” The court also recognized that the repeal did not advance an important public purpose, as it was undisputed that school boards were already able to terminate career status teachers for inadequate performance.