Attorney Theodore Boutrous

During a break in court proceedings, plaintiff Clara Campbell, 9, right, adjusts her hair as she listens to attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., left, speak about the suit to overturn teacher protection laws in California. Vergara vs. California, filed on behalf of nine public school students from across California, began trial in L.A. County Superior Court. (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times / January 27, 2014)

Attorneys seeking to overturn several of California's controversial teacher protection laws argued in court Monday that these statutes prevent the removal of "grossly ineffective" teachers from schools — contributing to an inadequate education for students assigned to them.

The opposition, however, countered that it is not the laws but inept management that fails to root out incompetent instructors.

Lawyers opened their case Monday in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority policies and the dismissal process — an overhaul of which could upend controversial job security for instructors.

Vergara vs. California, filed on behalf of nine students and their families in Los Angeles County Superior Court, contends that the laws are a violation of the Constitution's equal protection guarantee because they do not ensure that all students have access to an adequate education.

The suit seeks to revamp a dismissal process that the plaintiffs say is too costly and time-consuming, lengthen the time it takes for instructors to gain tenure and dismantle the "last hired, first fired" policies that fail to consider teacher effectiveness.

The state Department of Education and teachers unions are opposed to the lawsuit. They have said the laws are essential for recruiting and retaining instructors.

Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who represents Students Matter, the nonprofit that brought the suit, said in his opening statements that his side will prove that the laws themselves prevent administrators from removing ineffective teachers, thus lowering the quality of the teacher pool and contributing to an inadequate education for some students.

Many students — overwhelmingly those who are minority and low-income — are destined to suffer from ineffective and unequal instruction because administrators are unable to remove ineffective teachers from schools, he told the packed courtroom.

"These statutes work together in a vicious cycle," Boutrous said. "The system harms students every day."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Nimrod Elias countered that the laws themselves do not pair students with ineffective teachers. It is districts and administrators who have the opportunity and sole discretion to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms and decide whether to grant tenure. The laws are crucial safeguards, he said.

"It does not take 18 months to identify those incompetent teachers," he said.

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, the first witness, said the time frame for granting tenure is far too short to make a decision on a teacher's fitness for the classroom.

"There is no way this is a sufficient amount of time to make, in my opinion, an incredibly important judgment," he said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has been unable to dismiss all its "grossly ineffective" teachers because of the time and costs involved, Deasy said. He bristled when asked by an attorney for the plaintiffs why he disagreed with the defense assertion that ineffective teachers remain at schools because of poor management.

"Because LAUSD schools are not poorly managed," said Deasy, whose testimony is to continue Tuesday.

The case is being heard by Judge Rolf M. Treu, without a jury.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com