Why Are Teachers in North Carolina Being Asked to Swap Due Process for a Pay Raise?

Money-TrapIf you were an educator in the state that ranks 46th in teacher salaries and have received only a paltry one percent pay raise in five years, the prospect of securing a bonus of $5000 should be welcome news.

But what if the pay hike was contingent upon you trading away every shred of due process and job protection that you’ve earned?

And then there’s this: you’ll receive $500 the first year, but as for the lion’s share of the bonus? That’s supposed to arrive over four years but it hasn’t been budgeted and so … well, who knows?

Suddenly, this pay increase probably sounds less enticing, or maybe even a little foreboding. But this is the carrot that is being dangled in front of many educators in North Carolina. In December 2013, the General Assembly attached a provision to a budget bill that strips teachers of what sponsors call “tenure” in 2018. Moving forward, school boards will offer either 1-,2-, or 4-year contracts. At the end of each contract, teachers can be summarily dismissed by the board. In addition, 25 percent of the state’s educators will be eligible for a four-year contract with the $500 increases – if they opt in now and kiss their rights to due process goodbye.

Lawmakers who support the measure, including Governor Pat McCrory, are banking on the public believing the myth that educators in North Carolina have “tenure,” said teacher Rich Nixon of Johnston County.

“It’s the politicians who are stoking this misperception. Either they don’t understand the issue themselves or they do and they’re intentionally misleading the public,” says Nixon.

‘Who Wants to Take That Job?’

In North Carolina, teachers who have taught for four years at a proficient level are granted “career status,” which provides a limited measure of job protection and due process to ensure fair treatment if facing dismissal or demotion proceedings. Career status does not, by any stretch, offer the guarantees under tenure and educators can be dismissed for any number of reasons.

Nixon is one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought last December by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) that alleges that the career status repeal violates the federal and state constitutions by eliminating basic due process rights.

NCAE President Rodney Ellis calls the repeal the latest in the “full frontal assault by the legislative majority on public education in North Carolina.” It is not only unconstitutional but will also degrade the teaching profession and push more educators out of state, according to Ellis.

“It’s no wonder teachers are leaving here in droves and students are the ones who suffer.”

And forget about attracting young people into the profession, says Nixon.

“Before folks would understand that the pay wasn’t going to be great, but the benefits were pretty good and you could count on some degree of job security if you did a good job for the state,” Nixon explains. “Now we’re telling then ‘rotten pay, crumbling benefits, and you can be dismissed at the end of the year for no reason.’ Who wants to take that job?”

So, what about that “25 percent”? Under the new law, local school boards will draw from a list compiled by the superintendent, based on evaluations and performance of “proficient” teachers who have been employed for at least three years. Each of these educators will then be offered bonus pay – if they voluntarily give up all rights under career status now, four years before the repeal goes into affect.

The idea of being selected one of the “25 percenters” has generated a mixture of puzzlement, trepidation and even anger in many North Carolina teachers, including Dyane Barnett. Barnett, an elementary school teacher in Cary, says too many questions haven’t been answered.

“Everyone in my school is talking about this and we’re very concerned about all the possible ramifications,” Barnett says. “What happens if a teacher opts out? Then where does the money go (apparently not to the next teacher in line)? Will a list of teachers who opted in be made public? Can career status be regained if the law doesn’t go into effect in 2018?”

“What kind of profession makes their best employees surrender an accomplishment to get a raise?” Barnett asks. “I work in a great school and I have tremendous respect for my colleagues but this kind of law only pits teacher against teacher by promoting competition and divisiveness. This is having a real chilling effect on teachers everywhere.”

“The Legislature’s intent is to buy out those experienced educators who are likely to be very vocal about losing their due process rights and about a lot of other issues affecting public education in the state,” adds Nixon. “Students will lose important advocates. That is what these lawmakers want.”

Educators Keep Up the Pressure

In January, NCAE launched the “Decline to Sign” campaign to urge its members who might fall into the pool of the 25 percent not to accept the four-year contract and to encourage local school boards to pass resolutions in opposition of the contract. Thousands of educators – including non-NCAE members – have signed the petition and already 25 percent of school districts have signed resolutions against the repeal , including the state’s largest, Wake County.

In addition, Guilford County was the first local school board to file a lawsuit. Durham County has joined the suit and has signed an affidavit supporting NCAE’s legal action. Durham County School Board Chair Heidi Carter called the repeal of career status “destructive to public education.”

NCAE’s lawsuit will move forward unless the legislature reverses course. As opposition mounts, signs of backpedaling have begun to emerge. Educators caution, however, that McCrory and his supporters in the General Assembly have made conciliatory remarks before to placate opposition, but forged ahead regardless on a host of bills that have been ruinous to public schools. Still, Ellis is optimistic that the fight over due process in North Carolina is far from over.

“We’re in a good position. Educators are mobilized everywhere and lawmakers are really feeling the pressure.”