California's tenure protections for public school teachers were ruled unconstitutional Tuesday by a judge presiding in a lawsuit brought by nine students.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in ruling that all students are entitled to equal education and said the current situation discriminates against minority and low-income students in placing ineffective teachers in their schools.
"Plaintiffs claim that the challenged statutes result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students," the decision said.
The judge said the plaintiffs' equal-protection claims validly stated that the statutes violated their fundamental rights to equality of education.
The judge stayed implementation of the ruling pending appeals. The case only involves K-12 teachers.
Other states tackling the issue are also paying close attention to how the case plays out in the nation's most populous state.
One issue at the center of the lawsuit was whether bad teachers should be so heavily protected by tenure laws that they are almost impossible to fire. The lawsuit asked the courts to strike down several laws providing teachers with tenure, seniority-based job protection and other benefits.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy testified during the trial that it can take over two years on average to fire an incompetent tenured teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so, he said, can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.
Treu heard two months of testimony for and against the lawsuit filed by students who claim that they are being deprived of a good education. The plaintiffs said that the state's teacher tenure system, which allows only two years for evaluation before a teacher is hired permanently, does not provide sufficient time to weigh a teacher's effectiveness.
The trial represented the latest battle in a nationwide movement to abolish or toughen the standards for granting teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences during layoffs. Dozens of states have moved in recent years to get rid of or raise the standards for obtaining such protections.
Lawyers for teachers object to changes that they say will allow the firing of teachers on a whim. They argue the current system preserves academic freedom and helps attract talented teachers to a profession that doesn't pay well.
The lawsuit, Vergara v. California, was brought by Beatriz Vergara and eight other students who said they were saddled with teachers who let classrooms get out of control, came to school unprepared and in some cases told them they'd never make anything of themselves.
"This is a piece of a national debate and legal policy battle," plaintiffs' attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. said. "It's being watched around the country."
James Finberg, who represents the teachers, agreed that Treu's decision could be a bellwether for other states. With 325,000 teachers and 6 million students, California has one of the largest educational networks in the country.
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