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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina Court of Appeals began hearing a case Thursday on whether legislators violated the state Constitution by passing a law cutting job protections for veteran teachers.
A three-judge court panel heard from lawyers for the state and teachers, who say the law violates constitutional rights that protect contracts and prevent governments from taking a person's property.
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. Teachers were on probation for four years in a school district. After earning so-called career status, teachers also gained the right to a hearing where they could challenge their firing or demotion.
The 2013 law sought to move all veteran teachers into employment contracts of a defined number of years by 2018. Teachers who hadn't already worked the four years needed to qualify for career status are being offered one-year contracts.
Supporters said the prior law protected teachers from schoolhouse politics or rivalries.
"They could advocate for their students in ways that maybe administrators didn't appreciate," but without fear they would be summarily punished, said Narendra Ghosh, the attorney for the North Carolina Association of Educators and six veteran teachers who filed the lawsuit contesting the law. "One of the benefits of teachers under the career-status law is that they knew where they stood."
Republican lawmakers who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and voted to phase out those protections argued it would promote better classroom performance by making it easier to dump poor educators.
"This is about education policy, which the legislature is duty-bound to do under the constitution," state Justice Department attorney Melissa Trippe said.
But the judges struggled to understand how it didn't take away rights that teachers had counted as a benefit.
"You are basically making the teachers who achieved career status probationary teachers again, aren't you?" Judge Martha Geer asked.
After the hearing, NCAE President Rodney Ellis deflected a question about why teachers, as public employees, should have stronger job protections than those protecting the average worker.
"Teachers did not say that this is something that we feel like we deserve over other organizations," he said. "This is a contractual commitment that the state has made to teachers, and so we believe we have the right to have due process whenever there's a case where we feel we've been arbitrarily or capriciously dismissed."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.
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