RALEIGH, NC (News and Observer) - Thousands of North Carolina teachers will soon get something they haven't enjoyed for the last five years – the job security of a multi-year job contract that ends the year-to-year anxiety of whether they will be rehired.
The state legislature's five-year moratorium on multi-year teaching contracts, part of its efforts to eliminate teacher tenure, ends July 1. Now school districts across the state are developing new policies for next school year and beyond that will allow them to offer teachers employment contracts of up to four years.
The decisions districts make could affect their ability to recruit and retain teachers. Many educators say they prefer longer-term contracts that allow them to feel more settled in their jobs.
"I get my contract every year and it's a one-year contract," said Nancy Bergquist, a fourth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh. "You're not guaranteed that next year.
"They say if your evaluations are good more than likely you'll have that. But there's always that thought in the back of your mind: What if I don't get that contract? That's a little scary."
State lawmakers say the new system is better because it will let each school district decide how best to employ teachers instead of having the state dictate what's provided under tenure.
"It's my belief that not everyone in any profession should be in that profession," said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and House education leader. "There are lawyers who should not be lawyers. There are doctors who should not be doctors. There are legislators who should not be legislators, and there are teachers who should not be teachers."
Before 2013, North Carolina teachers had one-year contracts until they successfully completed a four-year probationary period to receive "career status," commonly called tenure.
Teachers with career status could still be fired under 15 reasons listed in state law, including inadequate performance, immorality, neglect of duty and a reduction in a district's teaching force. Teachers had due process rights to appeal the dismissals.
Republican legislators argued that teachers shouldn't be given any greater job protections than other professions. Teacher groups argued that educators deserved the additional rights to protect them from political pressures in their communities where jobs could be decided by changes in school board membership and whether teachers got along with their principal.
Lawmakers also cited the low number of dismissals to argue that tenure protected ineffective teachers, a claim hotly disputed by teacher groups who said career status was not the equivalent of guaranteeing a job for life.
"I think it's much better when you make it easier to get rid of someone who isn't dong their job," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Archdale and Senate majority whip.
Under a 2013 state law, school districts were prohibited from giving tenure to teachers who hadn't earned it as of Aug. 1 that year. The law also said all teachers who hadn't received career status were limited to one-year contracts until July 1, 2018, at which time tenure would be removed from teachers who had already received that right.
A lawsuit filed by the N.C. Association of Educators resulted in the N.C. Supreme Court ruling in April 2016 that career status could not be taken away from teachers who had already received the protection. But the court upheld the legislature's right to withhold tenure from new teachers.
The elimination of tenure affected many beginning teachers, some of whom were just a year away from tenure when the law was changed. But the change also affected veteran teachers who lost their career status when they changed school districts and couldn't regain tenure.
"They (legislators) were looking for a solution to a problem that didn't exist," said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators. "As I've said many times, there is a great deal of insecurity when teachers don't have career status, rolling contracts or due process rights.
"They feel they can be dismissed at any time. That is concerning because they want stability."
The loss of tenure has made some teachers reluctant to speak out about concerns within their school, according to Akisha Bailey-Martin, a third-grade teacher at Washington Elementary.
"I don't think you can be that advocate, that risk-taker, without tenure because you think if you say the wrong thing then my job is in jeopardy," she said.
The loss of tenure can make teachers feel like they're not valued, according to Amy Jo Glenn, a special-education teacher at Washington Elementary. She said teachers perform better when they become more established at a school.
"When you have a teacher that is secure in what they are doing and in their element, the education that comes out of that for the students is just going to be tremendous," Glenn said.
Teachers like Bailey-Martin and Glenn could get more security as the Wake County school board decides whether to offer them multi-year contracts.
Starting in July, teachers who don't have tenure but have been employed by a district for three or more years can receive a contract of one, two or four years. They can only get a multi-year contract if they've been evaluated as being proficient under the state's teacher evaluation system.
Earlier this month, the Wake school board reviewed different options proposed by the N.C. School Boards Association. Questions that need to be resolved include:
- How many years should teachers have to wait before getting four-year contracts?
- What requirements should they meet to get a four-year contract?
- Should contracts be for a fixed length or be “rolling” contracts that are extended annually so teachers are never in their final year?
The Wake school board could adopt a policy in January or February. School officials estimate there are 860 Wake teachers who are eligible for consideration for multi-year contracts after having worked in the state's largest district for three consecutive years on one-year contracts.
Competing for teachers
It's too soon to say where most districts will land on the teacher contracts, according to Kathy Boyd, a senior staff attorney with the N.C. School Boards Association. She said districts may adopt policies that will help them better compete for teachers.
"It may make a difference if one district was offering a four-year contract and the one next door is offering one-year contracts," she said.
Horn, the state lawmaker, said it's irresponsible for school districts to have waited so long when they've known for the past five years that they'll need to adopt new policies on teacher contracts.
"If you see a train coming five, six miles down the track, it seems to me you've got sufficient time to move your car or to plan or execute an appropriate plan for each individual," he said.
Jewell and Bailey-Martin say the new multi-year contracts are better than the alternative of having teachers live on year-to-year contracts. But they say the old tenure system was far better.
"Tenure just shows us that we're valued as teachers," Bailey-Martin said. "I know that some people think that tenure keeps the bad teachers in their position, but I don't think that's true.