LOS ANGELES — A first-of-its-kind court ruling that concluded California's union-backed teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws infringe on students' rights to an equal public education adds fire to a debate over whether the job protections afforded professional educators are partly to blame for what ails the nation's schools, experts said.
A judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday sided with nine students who sued to overturn the state statutes governing teacher hiring and firing, saying they served no compelling purpose and had led to an unfair, nonsensical system that drove excellent new teachers from the classroom too soon while allowing incompetent senior ones to remain.
The practices harm students in a way that "shocks the conscience" and have "a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students," Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said in striking down the five laws as violations of the California Constitution.
Similar civil rights arguments have been made in the past to challenge school desegregation and recently to contest inequities in school funding, but the California decision makes the first time that a court has declared teacher tenure and related job guarantees unconstitutional, said William Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University.
"Nationally, this debate has been going on in state legislatures and state policy circles for a long time," Koski said. "What has happened here is the reformers have decided that change isn't happening fast enough through the Legislature, and this does provide a template for how to bring this type of litigation and maybe get the courts to join the conversation."
The judge stayed his decision to allow for appeals that are likely to reach the California Supreme Court. If upheld, it would not directly affect the laws in New York, Minnesota, Pennsylvania or eight other states that like California base budget-related teacher layoffs solely on classroom seniority or in the six more where tenure drives the decisions about which teachers are let go.
But given California's size and the historical strength of its teacher unions, experts said it would nonetheless fuel legislative debates, if not more litigation, over how teachers are evaluated, rewarded, retained and terminated. If that happens, it will be with the support of the Obama administration, which has encouraged states to make student test scores a feature of teacher evaluations.
"My hope is that today's decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement Tuesday. "Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation."
Russlynn Ali, a former U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said the decision intensifies pressure on the unions and their Democratic allies in Sacramento to start working on reforms without waiting for the case to conclude. Ali serves as an adviser to Students Matter, the nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that spearheaded and financed the students' lawsuit.
"We have an opportunity now to put the bickering aside, to put the adult interests aside, and to focus solely on what's right for the kids of this state with this decision that will reverberate far outside our borders," Ali said.
Teachers have long argued that generous job protections help attract talented teachers to a profession that doesn't pay well and that experienced teachers are best-equipped to help students learn.
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, of whose organization California's largest teacher's union is an affiliate, called Treu's decision "deeply flawed" and predicted it would make it more difficult to retain quality teachers.
The union "will continue to stand up for students and focus on the ingredients that are proven to help students the most — like supporting new teachers, providing ongoing training, paying teachers a decent salary, and developing reliable evaluation systems to measure teacher effectiveness," Roekel said.
One factor that could mute the effect of the case is that California is in many ways an education reform "outlier," according to Kathy Christie, a vice president of information management at the Education Commission of the States. California teachers are granted tenure after just two years, which is more quickly than in all but four other states, while lawmakers across the country have been moving to make teacher performance the defining feature of layoff and tenure decisions, Christie said.
During the last two years, the number of states that have prohibited administrators from using longevity as a factor in deciding whom to fire when money is tight has doubled to 10, while the number that use performance evaluations instead of years of employment to guide tenure decisions rose from 10 in 2011 to 16 this year, according to data compiled by the Education Commission of the States.
Christie also noted that because education laws vary so much from state to state, it can be hard to predict how such reform efforts will be received. Idaho's lawmakers in 2011 passed laws that would have eliminated teacher tenure, but it was overturned by voters the next year. Meanwhile, a North Carolina judge last month struck down as unconstitutional a law that would have abolished tenure retroactively.
Students Matter says it is "exploring options for litigation in a number of venues" without specifying where.