LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that key job protections for teachers in California are unconstitutional, in a major loss for unions.
The verdict represents a complete victory by attorneys who argued that state laws governing teacher layoffs, tenure and dismissals harm students by making them more likely to suffer from grossly ineffective instruction.
If the preliminary ruling becomes final and is upheld, the effect will be sweeping across California and possibly the nation.
“The law was on our side and the evidence was overwhelming,” said Marcellus McRae, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Whatever happens, we can’t go backward. The time of defending the status quo and business as usual — those days are over. We have to re-create a system that focuses on placing children’s interests at the forefront.”
Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled, in effect, that it was too easy for teachers to gain strong job protections and too difficult to dismiss those who performed poorly in the classroom. If the ruling stands, California will have to craft new rules for hiring and firing teachers.
During a two-month trial in the case, Vergara vs. California, both sides asserted that the interests of students were at stake.
The Silicon Valley-based group Students Matter brought the lawsuit on behalf of nine students, contending that five laws hindered the removal of ineffective teachers.
The result, attorneys for the plaintiffs said, is a workforce with thousands of “grossly ineffective” teachers, disproportionately hurting low-income and minority students. As a result, the suit argued, the laws violated California’s constitution, which provides for equal educational opportunity.
The laws were defended by the state of California and the two largest teacher unions — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Their attorneys countered that it is not the laws but poor management that is to blame for districts’ failing to root out incompetent instructors.
Job protections benefit students by helping districts recruit and retain teachers, the state and the unions contended.
“This decision today is an attack on teachers, which is a socially acceptable way to attack children,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president-elect of the Los Angeles teachers union. Instead of providing for smaller classes or more counselors, “you attack teacher and student rights.”
Seniority and due process are part of the democratic process, he added. Limiting teacher job protections won’t improve accountability, he said, because that must be accomplished by administrators doing their jobs at schools.
Both sides made their arguments inside and outside of court, fully expecting the case to reach the state Supreme Court.
The effort embodied a “broader communication goal,” said Felix Schein, a spokesman for the group that brought the case. “Our hope is that the trial sets a moral imperative for legislators or other policymakers,” Schein said.
Much of the case was a tutorial on school reform and competing theories of what works best to help students.
The evidence clearly showed that, in some cases, the teacher dismissal process can be long and expensive — and that teachers have more protections against wrongful termination than other state employees.
The plaintiffs’ side argued that the current situation was bad for students, forcing them to endure poor teachers and the state to squander educational resources trying to fire them.
The other side asserted that the rules resulted in fair outcomes for teachers, which helps students in the long run.
Layoff rules that rely on seniority also were disputed. Strong but less-experienced teachers should not lose their jobs when layoffs are necessary, the attorneys representing the students said. Instead, they argued, quality should trump seniority.
The other side challenged how quality would be measured and pointed to a general correlation between experience and effectiveness.
Also at issue was the length of time before teachers could earn the strong job protections that come with tenure. California’s 18-month period is needlessly and harmfully short, those supporting the suit said.
The state and the unions defended the tenure rules as well, 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.”
Treu, who decided the case without a jury, gave few indications during the trial about how he would rule, asking tough questions of both sides.
L.A. schools Superintendent John Deasy appeared as a witness for those seeking to overturn the laws, but both sides cited his testimony as evidence for their case. Deasy was outside court Tuesday morning awaiting the delivery of the verdict.
Parties to the case have 15 days to file objections to the judge’s ruling.