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California teacher tenure ruling may fuel debate

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Alex Caputo-Pearl, president elect of the United Teachers Los Angeles, UTLA, takes questions on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles Tuesday, June 10, 2014. A judge struck down tenure and other job protections for California’s public school teachers as unconstitutional Tuesday, saying such laws harm students, especially poor and minority ones by saddling them with bad teachers. In a landmark decision that could influence the gathering debate over tenure across the country, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in ruling that students have a fundamental right to equal education. Siding with the nine students who brought the lawsuit, he ruled that California laws on the hiring and firing of teachers have resulted in “a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.” He agreed, too, that a disproportionate share of these teachers are in schools that have mostly minority and low-income students. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president elect of the United Teachers Los Angeles, UTLA, takes questions on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles Tuesday, June 10, 2014. A judge struck down tenure and other job protections for California’s public school teachers as unconstitutional Tuesday, saying such laws harm students, especially poor and minority ones by saddling them with bad teachers. In a landmark decision that could influence the gathering debate over tenure across the country, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in ruling that students have a fundamental right to equal education. Siding with the nine students who brought the lawsuit, he ruled that California laws on the hiring and firing of teachers have resulted in “a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.” He agreed, too, that a disproportionate share of these teachers are in schools that have mostly minority and low-income students. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy checks his phone outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, while awaiting for the final Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles Tuesday, June 10, 2014. A judge struck down tenure and other job protections for California’s public school teachers as unconstitutional Tuesday, saying such laws harm students, especially poor and minority ones by saddling them with bad teachers. In a landmark decision that could influence the gathering debate over tenure across the country, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in ruling that students have a fundamental right to equal education. Siding with the nine students who brought the lawsuit, he ruled that California laws on the hiring and firing of teachers have resulted in “a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.” He agreed, too, that a disproportionate share of these teachers are in schools that have mostly minority and low-income students. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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

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