The decision by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu dealt a serious blow to teachers unions who defend California's laws, including those governing when teachers win permanent employment status and when they can be fired. An organization that brought the case on behalf of public school students, Students Matter, framed the lawsuit in the context of California students having a fundamental right to a quality public education.
In a decision that referenced landmark education equity cases like Brown v Board of Education and Serrano v Priest, Treu wrote that evidence of ineffective teachers running classrooms "shocks the conscience."
"All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child's in-school educational experience," Treu wrote.
Rules that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom, attorneys for Students Matter argued, deprive many students - particularly low-income ones - of their constitutional right to a useful education.
The lawsuit challenged the two-year time frame after which teachers are eligible to win tenure, the guidelines for firing teachers and the requirements, known as "last in first out," that teachers with the least service time go first during budget-driven layoffs.
Treu agreed. He said the current permanent employment statute undercuts teachers and students alike, called last-in-first-out a "lose-lose situation" and decried the "tortuous" process for firing teachers as "so complex, so time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory."
With the state likely to appeal, the case could continue to wind its way through the courts. That could open a window for a legislative response in Sacramento, where a push to streamline the teacher dismissal process has emerged in a key bill this year.
In a statement, the California Teachers Association called the ruling "deeply flawed" and vowed to appeal.
"Circumventing the legislative process to strip teachers of their professional rights hurts our students and our schools," the union said. "This lawsuit has nothing to do with what's best for kids, but was manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools."
PHOTO: At right, Maiya Miller, 8, hugs Principal Shana Henry on the first day of school at Pacific Elementary school in Sacramento on September 3, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Renee C. Byer