Los Angeles -- A California judge ruled as unconstitutional Tuesday the state's teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws, saying they keep bad teachers in the classroom and force out promising good ones.
Poor and minority students are especially hurt by the laws because "grossly ineffective teachers" more often work in their schools, Los Angeles County Judge Rolf M. Treu said.
The ruling was hailed by the nation's top education chief as bringing to California -- and possibly the nation -- an opportunity to build "a new framework for the teaching profession." The decision represented "a mandate" to fix a broken teaching system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
The court ordered a stay of the decision, pending an appeal by the state and the teachers union, the plaintiffs said.
Reforming teacher tenure and firing laws is a hotly debated issue in American education, and the California case is being watched nationally, as evidenced by a statement from Duncan immediately after the court ruling.
Reformers say firing a bad teacher is almost impossible because of tenure laws and union protections, but teachers and their unions argue school boards and their firing criteria have unfair, overtly political standards.
Duncan, a former schools chief in Chicago, said he hoped the ruling will spark a national dialogue on a teacher tenure process "that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift."
At a minimum, Duncan said the court decision, if upheld, will bring to California "a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students' rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve."
"The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today's court decision is a mandate to fix these problems," Duncan said.
Teachers unions, however, criticized the ruling, with one leader stating the court decision was "anti-public education" and a "scapegoating" of teachers for public education's problems. They will appeal the ruling.
The judge upheld the plaintiffs' arguments that the state's teacher tenure laws violated their rights to an equal education and caused "the potential and/or unreasonable exposure of grossly ineffective teachers to all California students in general and to minority and/or low income students in particular," he wrote.
An expert called by the defendants estimated there are as many as 8,250 "grossly ineffective" teachers in the state -- or up to 3% statewide, the judge said.
But the state's two-year process for evaluating new teachers -- much shorter than the three-year period in 32 states -- "does not provide nearly enough time" for making tenure decisions, the judge said.
"This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one) disadvantaged by the current ... statute," Treu wrote.
Firing a bad teacher could take anywhere from two to almost 10 years and cost $50,000 to $450,000 or more, the judge said.
Appearing on CNN, former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee called the ruling "groundbreaking" and a “huge victory for kids across the country.”
Responding to the argument that tenure is the solution to keeping highly qualified teachers in their jobs, Rhee said, that reality is not being played out in today’s schools.
“It has essentially become a job protection for life, regardless of performance. What this judge is saying is, that is absolutely unacceptable. I think teachers need protection but again tenure is protecting ineffective teachers who are in the classroom. It (ruling) means they (students) now have a right to get a really high quality, effective education.”