LOS ANGELES — A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under the state constitution.
The decision hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.
“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” Judge Rolf Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court wrote in the ruling. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
The ruling, which was enthusiastically endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, brings to a close the first chapter of the case, Vergara v. California, in which a group of student plaintiffs argued that state tenure laws had deprived them of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place.
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Under state law in California, teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months, and layoffs must be determined by seniority — a process known as “last in, first out.” Administrators seeking to dismiss a teacher they deem incompetent must follow a complicated procedure that typically drags on for months, if not years.
In the ruling, Judge Treu agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that California’s current laws make it impossible to get rid of the system’s numerous low-performing and incompetent teachers; that seniority rules requiring the newest teachers to be laid off first were harmful; and that granting tenure to teachers after only two years on the job was farcical, offering far too little time for a fair assessment of their skills.
Further, Treu said, the least effective teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools filled with low-income and minority students. The situation violates those students’ constitutional right to an equal education, he determined.
In essence, Treu ruled that a quality education is guaranteed for all students in the state — which relies on effective teachers — and that anything less violates the equal protection clause in the state constitution.
But lawyers for the states and teachers’ unions said that overturning such laws would erode necessary protections that stop school administrators from making unfair personnel decisions. They also argued that the vast majority of teachers in the state’s schools are competent and providing students with all the necessary tools to learn. More important factors than teachers, they argued, are social and economic inequalities, as well as the funding levels of public schools.
The state and the unions defended the tenure rules, saying that the short time frame was a trade-off that included benefits: Borderline teachers would be dismissed sooner while talented instructors could quickly obtain job security that would help to retain them in the field.
“Let’s be clear: Teachers who are unable to carry out their crucial work should be ushered out of the profession,” said Michael Powell, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. “But the more important focus should be on recruiting, supporting and retaining great teachers for all our kids.”
Three states and the District of Columbia have eliminated tenure, but similar efforts have repeatedly failed elsewhere, including California.
David Welch, a Silicon Valley technology magnate who financed the organization — Students Matter — that is largely responsible for bringing the Vergara case to court has indicated that his group is open to funding other similar legal fights, particularly in states with powerful teachers’ unions where legislatures have defeated attempts to change teacher tenure laws.
Washington state doesn’t have the same laws that were challenged in California, but does face some of the same issues.
In Washington, for example, state law doesn’t require school districts to use seniority in teacher layoffs, although teacher contracts in many school districts do.
A 2010 study by the University of Washington found that eight of Washington’s 10 largest school districts use seniority as the only factor in determining layoffs. By the 2015-16 school year, however, state law will require that districts use teacher evaluations as a factor in any personnel decisions, including layoffs.
Washington state also doesn’t grant many job protections to teachers until they’ve been on the job for three years.
Despite the differences, some say that the landscape here is the same as in California — that many low-income students are shortchanged by hiring and firing practices that are not based on teacher effectiveness.
In the Seattle area, for example, low-income schools tend to have the least experienced teachers, said Frank Ordway of the League of Education Voters, which he said “breeds inequality in educational results for those kids.”
Chris Eide of Teachers United, a teacher advocacy group, called the California ruling historic, saying, “This is our Brown v. Board of Education in terms of creating equity in education for low-income students.”
But Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, assailed the ruling as an attack on teachers that “doesn’t have anything to do with strengthening the teaching profession.”
“It just makes teachers out to be a scapegoat for larger issues facing schools — such as the lack of adequate funding,” Wood said.
Seattle Times education reporter Linda Shaw contributed to this report