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NC appeals court rules that 'career status' protections can't be taken from veteran teachers

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina lawmakers violated veteran teachers' constitutional rights by passing a law that would remove job protections they've earned, the state's Court of Appeals found Tuesday, but the court rejected efforts to restore newer teachers' pathway to the protected job status.

Under the 2013 law, legislators sought to move away from a system that protected teachers from firing or demotion after they passed four years of probation and earned "career status."

Veteran teachers argued that the law violated constitutional rights protecting contracts and preventing governments from taking a person's property.

A 2-1 majority of the court agreed that veteran teachers' status couldn't be taken away and cited the North Carolina Supreme Court's "consistent pattern of refusing to allow the State to renege on its statutory promises ..."

However, the appeals court said newer teachers lack standing to challenge part of the law preventing them from earning career status. The court said teachers must have already earned the status to assert their right to it.

The appeals court's opinion affirms a lower court ruling from last summer on the lawsuit.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, which filed the lawsuit with several teachers, said it was pleased that the court sided with veteran teachers, and it's reviewing the ruling to decide whether to take further action on behalf of newer teachers.

"Career status is a critical tool to recruit and retain quality educators," NCAE President Rodney Ellis said in a statement.

For more than four decades, veteran teachers were protected from firing or demotion except for a list of reasons that included poor performance, immorality and insubordination. Career status also gives teachers the right to challenge firing or demotion before the school board or at a special hearing.

But Republican lawmakers who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 voted to phase out those protections. They argued it would promote better classroom performance by making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The recent law sought to move all teachers into employment contracts of up to four years, with some veteran teachers receiving yearly raises. It also prevents teachers from earning the protected status if they hadn't done so by the school year starting in the fall of 2013.

In a partial dissent, judge Chris Dillon wrote that he believes the law taking away career status is legally sound except for its failure to guarantee veteran teachers hearings to discuss decisions to let them go.

A joint statement from state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said legislative leaders are reviewing the opinion and considering their options.

"While we are disappointed with today's ruling, we appreciate the thoughtful dissent," they said.

One of the plaintiffs, Chapel Hill High School history and civics teacher Brian Link, said the case has "drawn attention to the dire straits that North Carolina is in with respect to hiring and retaining teachers."

Link had just finished his third year of teaching when the law was enacted. A former corporate lawyer, Link chose to become a teacher in North Carolina partly because it still had favorable career-status laws at the time.

"I left year three thinking everything was going to be great ... and came back that fall to the sort of chaos that the Legislature instilled," he said.

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