In an April decision, the state’s highest court held that the General Assembly had violated the U.S. Constitution when it stripped teachers of tenure protection. The N.C. Supreme Court’s decision in large part was based on the state’s failure to show such a dramatic step was reasonable and necessary.
In 1971, the General Assembly first established a tenure system for teachers. The specifics of this career-status protect system have changed over time; in its most recent form, a local school board would vote whether to grant career status to any teacher reaching four years of experience in that school system. If approved, the teacher would enter a career contract which allowed dismissal, demotion, or relegation to part-time status based only under one or more of 15 reasons specified in the law.
One reason is “inadequate performance.” Any teachers recommended for dismissal had the right to a hearing at which they could be represented by a lawyer and present evidence.
In 2013, the General Assembly, under full Republican control for the first time since the 19th century, abolished this teacher tenure scheme. In its place, it allowed school systems to enter into one-, two-, or four-year contracts with teachers. A decision not to renew a contract could be based on any reason not considered “arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, for personal or political reasons, or on any basis prohibited by state or federal law.”
The N.C. Association of Educators and six teachers sued, claiming the tenure repeal violated Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids, among other things, the passage of any “law impairing the obligation of contracts.” Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the law was unconstitutional when applied to teachers who already had entered into contracts with the career-status provision. He also held that the General Assembly could adopt its new definition of tenure protection for teachers who had not entered into such contracts, that is, teachers hired after the 2013 law was enacted or who had fewer than four years of experience at their current school district.
The matter eventually worked its way to the N.C. Supreme Court, which upheld Hobgood’s ruling.
“We conclude that repeal of the Career Status Law unlawfully infringes upon the contract rights of those teachers who had already achieved career status,” wrote Justice Robert Edmunds for a unanimous court.
“As a result, we hold that sections 9.6 and 9.7 are unconstitutional, though only to the extent that the act retroactively applies to teachers who had attained career status as of 26 July 2013.”
The court held that the Career Status Law did not by itself create vested contractual rights. Instead, these rights came from career status contracts between individual teachers and school boards.
“At the time the parties made the contract, the right to career status vested. At that point, the General Assembly no longer could take away that vested right retroactively in a way that would substantially impair it,” Edmunds wrote.
The justices went further. Federal and state case law previously held that even a substantial impairment of contractual rights can be upheld if it was a reasonable and necessary way of serving a legitimate public purpose. The state may not, however, alter existing contractual rights if a less drastic change would serve the same purpose.
The high court affirmed that maintaining the quality of public schools was an important purpose. The problem came at the next step, as the state presented no evidence showing it had a problem getting rid of ineffective teachers. This prompted the high court to conclude that a necessary public purpose didn’t exist to strip individual teachers of existing tenure protections.
The Supreme Court also held that more modest options existed.
“While we acknowledge that the retroactive repeal was motivated by the General Assembly’s valid concern for flexibility in dismissing low-performing teachers, we do not see how repealing career status from those for whom that right had already vested was necessary and reasonable,” wrote Edmunds.
“The legislature could add additional grounds for dismissal as it did in 1973. Or the General Assembly could have refined the definition of ‘inadequate performance’ as it did in 2011. Given the possibility of such less-sweeping alternatives for improving teacher quality, ‘the state has failed to demonstrate’ why the retroactive repeal was necessary and reasonable,” he wrote.
The case is NCAE v. State, (228A15).