No matter what you call it, it’s in the contract

In our most charitable mood, we might blame it all on a misunderstanding. Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly went on the warpath against what they call teacher tenure last year because they didn’t understand what tenure means in the state’s public schools. It doesn’t guarantee anyone a job. It doesn’t block a warranted demotion or dismissal. It is not, in short, the kind of cushy, I’m-here-til-I-suck-this-thing-dry deal that many legislators enjoy.
Tenure, for the state’s K-12 teachers, simply protects them against arbitrary dismissal. It guarantees them only the type of fairness one would hope to get from a hearing panel and a system of due process. It is more precisely called “career status,” a term that correctly implies teachers have proved themselves after four successful years in the trenches.
Columnist Mike Parker, no stranger to the classroom, did a good job of explaining tenure in his most recent piece in The Free Press, but his main point is this: no matter what it is or what you call it, the state can’t promise it in a contract and then decide later to break that promise. It can’t simply take property.
So ruled Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood in issuing a permanent injunction against the 2013 law that would have eliminated career status for teachers by 2018. That law has already caused headaches for school boards across the state, the Lenoir County board among them, because of the way lawmakers tried to buy their way out of a contractual agreement.
School boards were told to identify 25 percent of their corps of experienced teachers — presumably, the top 25 percent as determined by a system each school district was told to devise — so these teachers could be given bonuses of $500 a year for four years in exchange for relinquishing their career-status designation. Educator and author Diane Ravitch, speaking at the 2014 Emerging Issues Forum in February, characterized the law as offering “a reward to what presumably are your best teachers so that it’s easier to fire them.”
Lenoir County has many hundreds of experienced teachers. Singling out a quarter of them for extra pay would not have been good for morale or for the spirit of cooperation on which good schools depend. Thank goodness, and thanks to Judge Hobgood, school boards won’t have to make that tough call — barring an appeal by the state, that is. The bad news is that without specific legislation teachers who don’t have career status now won’t have the opportunity to earn it.
Is it any wonder public school teachers feel disrespected? Their pay lags, their career path is cut short and lawmakers apparently think most of them are doing a bad job. Check out this video of Ms. Ravitch’s speech to see how far North Carolina fell last year in the estimation of educators and how far legislators have to go this summer to get things fixed.