RALEIGH --North Carolina lawmakers violated the constitutional rights of veteran teachers by taking away job protections they'd already earned, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Friday.
The high court said the General Assembly couldn't retroactively repeal protections veteran teachers had been promised for more than four decades, though new teachers could be stopped from earning the same type of benefit. The Supreme Court ruled a 2013 state law violated constitutional rights that protect contracts.
Since 1971, North Carolina has offered so-called career teachers extra protection from firings that they said can sometimes involve malicious schoolhouse politics. The state's career status law now protects teachers approved for that status after at least four years in a school district. Earning that tenure means teachers can be fired or demoted only for outlined reasons that include poor performance, immorality and insubordination. Teachers also have the right to a hearing to challenge their firing or demotion.
Republican lawmakers argued ending those protections would improve classroom performance by making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.
"No evidence indicates that such a problem existed," Justice Robert Edmunds Jr. wrote for the court.
Teachers and school administrators testified there was nothing impeding the dismissal of inadequate educators, Edmunds wrote. Legislators also had many other options, such as giving school boards more flexibility or sharpening teaching expectations, the court ruled.
"We fail to see a legitimate public purpose for which it was necessary substantially to impair the vested contractual rights of career status teachers," Edmunds wrote.
The court said affected teachers said they relied on the promise of job protections as a benefit that helped offset low salaries, now averaging near the lowest in the country.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, expressed approval that the ruling means tenure was ended for teachers who hadn't yet earned it and future educators. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said in a statement he wanted "policies that allow local school administrators to remove teachers that consistently underperform."
The North Carolina Association of Educators and five tenured public school teachers challenged the law and won two lower court decisions.
"Career status is an important tool to recruit and retain quality educators, just like fair compensation and working and learning conditions that lead to student success," NCAE President Rodney Ellis said.
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