LOS ANGELES – Tenure and other job protections for California’s 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.
“This court finds that plaintiffs have met their burden of proof on all issues presented,” he wrote. At another point in the decision, he wrote that “there is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”
The ruling could have national implications because other states tackling the issue are also paying close attention to how the ruling plays out in the nation’s most populous state.
“It’s powerful,” said Theodore Boutrous Jr., the plaintiffs’ attorney who presented the case in court. “It’s a landmark decision that can change the face of education in California and nationally.”
Courts around the country will look at their own statutes to see how they can be changed, he said. “This is going to be a huge template for what’s wrong with education. It will impact the national education referendum going on right now,” Boutrous said.
Treu said evidence at the trial showed the specific effects of ineffective teachers on students. “The evidence is compelling,” he said. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
Based on massive study, an expert testified that a single year with a grossly ineffective teacher costs a classroom full of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings, Treu wrote.
The judge stayed implementation of the ruling pending appeals. The case only involves K-12 teachers.
The California Attorney General’s office said it was evaluating its legal options.
“We are reviewing the tentative ruling and consulting with our clients,” said Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for Attorney General Kamala Harris. He could not immediately say if the state would appeal.
The California Teachers Association called the decision “deeply flawed” and vowed an appeal. “Circumventing the legislative process to strip teachers of their professional rights hurts our students and our schools,” the association said in a statement.
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 judge wrote that he was mindful of current intense political debate over education issues. He said, however, he could not allow politics to influence his ruling.
“That this court’s decision will and should result in political discourse is beyond question, but such consequence cannot and does not detract from its obligation to consider only the evidence and law in making its decision,” the ruling said.
The judge said it is not the function of the court to dictate or advise the Legislature on how to replace the challenged statutes.
All he could do is rule on the constitutionality and “trust the Legislature to fulfill its mandated duty to enact legislation on the issues … that passes constitutional muster, thus providing each child in this state with a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education,” Treu wrote.
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.
The lawsuit was backed by wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch’s nonprofit group Students Matter, which assembled a high-profile legal team including Boutrous, who represented President George W. Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 recount of Florida presidential ballots. Welch, who made a fortune in corporate acquisitions, says he founded Students Matter because of a passion for public education, adding both he and his three children have attended public schools.
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.
By LINDA DEUTSCH
Associated Press Special Correspondent