Resistance Mounting to North Carolina's Education "Reforms"

Last Updated: February 26, 2014

This article appeared in the February 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Two provisions in North Carolina’s sweeping 2013 education “reforms” have met significant legal pushback this month. On February 11, the Guilford County school board voted to sue the state over a law to abolish teacher tenure, referred to in North Carolina as “career status.” And on February 21, a superior court judge ordered that distribution of funds in the state’s new voucher program be stopped until issues in two pending lawsuits have been resolved.

The abolishment of teacher tenure and the voucher program were among a series of significant changes to North Carolina’s public education policy that were implemented during the 2013 legislative session. Other changes included an overhaul of the state’s charter school law, allowing rapid expansion of the number of charters and relaxing financial and academic accountability; an end to salary increases for teachers who earn a master’s degree; a freeze on teacher salaries; reductions in funding for textbooks and instructional materials; and reductions in the number of teaching assistants. North Carolina teacher salaries have fallen from the national average to 48th. You can read previous RPM coverage here.

Teacher tenure

A number of states have reduced tenure protections for teachers in recent years, but North Carolina went much further by eliminating “career status” altogether. The status did not guarantee teachers their jobs, but it did ensure due process if a teacher was terminated or had their salary reduced.

Under the new North Carolina law, career status will not be available to any teacher who has not yet earned it. And, it will be ended for all teachers in 2018. Instead, teachers will be offered one-year contracts that will be tied, in part, to a new evaluation system that is partially based on student test scores.

The law also directs schools boards to identify the 25% of teachers by July 1 and offer those teachers a $500 bonus and four-year contract if the teacher signs away their career status.

This provision has met with widespread opposition. The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) is leading a Decline to Sign campaign to encourage teachers to reject the bonuses and not sign away their tenure protections. In several schools, entire faculties have pledged not to take the bonuses. Dozens of school boards have passed resolutions against the provision, claiming it forces an arbitrary picking and choosing among teachers that weakens morale and that the law lacks guidance in how to identify teachers.

Guilford County is the first, and so far only, school board that has voted to sue the state over the law. The board argues that career status is a contractually earned right that cannot retroactively be taken from teachers who have already earned it. NCAE has also filed a lawsuit against the state challenging the teacher tenure law.

Vouchers suspended

North Carolina’s voucher program directed some $10 million in public school funds to grants for students to attend private schools of their choice. The funds would cover about 2,400 students and were initially targeted to students eligible for the federal free/reduced-price school lunch program. Private schools receiving vouchers are not required to participate in state accountability programs and are free to accept or refuse students based on the school’s own criteria.

Over 4,000 students had applied for the grants, dubbed Opportunity Scholarships and worth up to $4,200 each. Most students were planning to use the grants to attend religious schools. The state was scheduled to begin awarding the grants in March.

The NCAE and the North Carolina Association of School Boards sued the state (Guilford County Board of Education has also joined the lawsuit). On February 21, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood halted the program until a trial can determine the program’s constitutionality. Legislative leaders have claimed they will address constitutionality issues in the upcoming session.

Other states on tenure and vouchers

This month a judge in Louisiana ruled that a controversial 2012 law dramatically reducing teacher tenure protections is unconstitutional. That law, championed by Governor Bobby Jindal, essentially ended due process rights for teachers. Instead, teachers who were dismissed could only take their case to a three-person panel, two members of which were appointed by the Superintendent and/or principal. The panel would make recommendations to the Superintendent, who retained discretionary authority over the final decision.

Louisiana’s voucher law was also struck down as a violation of the state’s ban on using public school funding for private education. However, lawmakers in that state re-wrote the budget, moving funding for the voucher program out of the public education budget.

Read more:

North Carolina teacher tenure:

North Carolina voucher program:

Louisiana tenure law 

Read more from the February 2014 Rural Policy Matters.