NC educators oppose law ending job protections

Oct. 21, 2013 @ 05:14 PM

Some public school teachers and school administrators are pushing back against new a North Carolina law that slowly eliminates job protections for educators, with their largest labor association planning a lawsuit aiming to reverse the end of tenure rights.

The state budget approved in July starts phasing out teacher tenure next year. The law directs school districts to pick the teachers who rank in the top 25 percent for effectiveness and offer them the opportunity to sign four-year contracts in exchange for bonuses totaling $5,000 over the period.

By 2018, one-, two- or four-year contracts will replace the tenure rights that require school administrators to follow a defined process when firing a teacher.

Critics of tenure in the Republican-led General Assembly approved the change because they said the rules make it difficult to get rid of ineffective teachers once they qualify for the protections after four years of teaching.

But the law doesn't define how administrators would objectively distinguish teachers between the best and the rest. Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Edward Pruden said Monday it's an impossible task that sets up public schools for lawsuits by teachers left out of the bonus money.

"The problem is that we have 800 teachers in Brunswick County and 132 of those would qualify for the bonus and we have no objective, rational, fair way to rank-order 800 teachers in order of effectiveness," he said. "In other words, I have no rational way to explain to the 133rd teacher why she didn't make it and the 132nd did."

The effort to pay teachers based on merit and classroom accomplishment won't work the way it may in sales or manufacturing, Pruden said. Having to compete for limited bonuses and contracts could cause teachers to undermine one another, rather than cooperate, he said.

"How do you account for a teacher having a classroom of advanced or gifted students and another teacher having a classroom of students with learning disabilities, or students who don't speak English, or students from poverty who don't come to school with the advantages of a middle-class child? There's no way to slice the onion that thin and separate teachers by their performance," he said.

In neighboring New Hanover County, teachers at Murray Middle School signed a petition opposing the individual evaluations for the post-tenure bonus and asked that their school not receive any money to pay them. A school district spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment Monday.

Some teachers angry about the lack of a pay raise, loss of tenure and more difficult working conditions are using social media to anonymously organize a statewide teacher walk-out on Nov. 4. The North Carolina Association of Educators, which represents teachers but is not a union, said it is neither organizing nor endorsing the walk-out. State law bans strikes or work stoppages by public employees.

A spokeswoman for state Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, did not respond to a request for comment on the complaints. Berger's office pointed to a new study by researchers from Stanford and the University of Virginia into performance incentives work introduced in the Washington, D.C., schools in 2009-10.

"The evidence available to date has been mixed at best" as to whether performance pay works, Profs. Thomas Dee and James Wykoff wrote. But the researchers said poorly performing teachers left Washington classrooms in greater numbers under threat of dismissal, while teachers who stayed showed improved performance.

NCAE is planning to file a lawsuit in the coming months to challenge the elimination of teacher tenure, said Ann McColl, the organization's top lawyer. The lawsuit is likely to argue that the state would be violating the contractual rights of teachers who have either enjoyed the job protections or were on their way to earning them, she said. Many teachers saw tenure as balancing low pay, she said.

"That's kind of the understanding that a lot of people had when they got the tenure," McColl said. "You're not paying me more, you're not giving me the resources I need in my classroom, and now you're going to take away a contractual right."