In a landmark decision with national ramifications, a Los Angeles judge ruled Tuesday that California laws governing teacher tenure, firing and layoffs violate students' constitutional right to education equality -- a stunning victory for the Silicon Valley nonprofit that brought the lawsuit on behalf of nine students, including three from the Bay Area.
The long-awaited ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found that the evidence of how poor teachers affect students "shocks the conscience" and that "there is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms." He noted that the current laws protect bad teachers, harm students and disproportionately affect poor and minority pupils.
Treu ordered the state to stop enforcing tenure, dismissal and layoff laws but stayed his orders pending possible appeals by the state and California's two major teachers unions. The decision was a huge defeat for the powerful teachers union and sent a clear signal to legislators to begin rewriting those laws to make it easier to fire poorly performing teachers, to delay or change tenure rules and to rework layoff criteria so that newly hired teachers aren't always the first to lose their jobs.
The advocates in the case, which had been closely watched across the country, hailed the ruling as historic.
"This is a monumental day for California's public education system," said lead co-counsel Theodore J. Boutros Jr., who also successfully argued the case that struck down California's ban on same-sex marriage. "This decision is going to reverberate powerfully across California and across the nation."
Unions, however, denounced the decision in the case known as Vergara vs. California.
"The millionaires behind this case have successfully diverted attention from the real problems of public education," said Fred Glass of the California Federation of Teachers.
CFT President Joshua Pechthalt called the suit "fundamentally anti-public education, scapegoating teachers for problems originating in underfunding, poverty and economic inequality."
The lawsuit was brought by Students Matter, a group funded largely by entrepreneur Dave Welch of Atherton, who was ecstatic about the outcome and disagreed with unions' accusations that the suit was an attack on public schools.
"I believe in public education. It is a key cornerstone and pillar of democracy," said Welch, a father of three who co-founded optical telecommunications system firm Infinera and has been active in school reform.
Treu's ruling agreed with the plaintiffs on all challenges to the current laws:
Plaintiffs alleged that schools serving poor students have more teachers with less seniority and therefore are more likely to lose teachers during layoffs, which by California law must be based almost solely on seniority. As a result, those schools suffer from higher turnover and more inexperienced and ineffective teachers.
Anthony Trunzo, the father of children in Oakland and Berkeley public schools, welcomed the ruling. "I'm not a big believer in tenure for anybody," he said. An ineffective teacher should first get help in improving, and if they don't, schools need to act to ensure the right classroom environment for kids, he said.
The lawsuit was based on California's constitutional protections but drew national attention for its challenge to tenure, a job protection widely granted to teachers and academics and a status necessary, unions say, to prevent capricious firings and discipline.
In a statement, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson wrote that the ruling might make it more difficult to attract talented and dedicated educators. "Teachers are not the problem in our schools, they are the solution," he said.
Reaction was muted among school districts, given their close and sometimes delicate relationships with teacher unions.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Shelly Viramontez, who oversees personnel in the Campbell Union elementary district. "It is a move in the right direction."
In San Jose Unified, Chief Business Officer Stephen McMahon said the ruling "fits with our work to move public education forward," referring to the district's effort to create a three-year probationary period for some teachers -- a request denied by the State Board of Education.
Students, however, are more direct in their opinions about the law. Tenure after two years "doesn't make sense to me," said Callan Garber, 15, who will be a junior at Los Altos High.
Plaintiff Julia Macias, who will be a freshman in Los Angeles Unified, said she was glad to be able to speak up for what she believes in. Other plaintiffs included Daniella Martinez of San Jose, Brandon Debose Jr. of Oakland and Kate Elliott of San Carlos. The lead plaintiff, Beatriz Vergara, and others live in Southern California.
Together, they proved that California laws impose "a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education," Treu ruled, and impose a disproportional burden on poor and minority students.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.