The tenure and seniority system that has long protected California public school teachers, even ineffective ones, was struck down Tuesday in a court decision that could change hiring and firing policies nationwide.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said that the laws governing job security were unconstitutional because they harmed predominantly low-income, minority students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom.
The protections "impose a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education," he wrote. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."
The 16-page decision ends the process of laying off teachers based solely on when they were hired. It also strips them of extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees. And, lastly, it eliminates the current tenure process, under which instructors are either fired or win strong job security about 18 months after they start teaching.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the ruling a nationwide "mandate" to change similar "laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students." He said the welfare of "millions of young people" is at stake.
The verdict represents a major loss for teacher unions and an undiluted victory by the attorneys and families that brought the landmark case on behalf of a well-funded Silicon Valley group.
Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy, who testified for the winning side, called the ruling "historic" and a "call to action."
Union leaders and other critics faulted the outcome.
"This is a sad day for public education," said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. No student should endure an ineffective teacher, "but in focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, [Treu] strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice."
The state's case was handled by the attorney general's office and joined by lawyers for the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers.
Treu wrote that the laws also hurt teachers, saddling them with poor-performing colleagues and the system with expensive dismissal cases, which drain classroom resources.
If layoffs become necessary, teacher performance should matter, he said. When a high-quality junior teacher is laid off instead of a lesser, more experienced colleague, "the result is classroom disruption on two fronts," he wrote. It's a "lose-lose situation" that "is unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable."
In his ruling, Treu consistently echoed the arguments of the attorneys who sued California and the top public officials responsible for the state's education laws.
He accepted, for example, that teachers can be evaluated fairly through a statistical analysis based on student test scores, a point of dispute among some educators and experts. He cited testimony quantifying how many months of learning a student can lose because of a bad teacher.
He noted that another expert said a poor instructor costs a class $1.4 million in lifetime earnings.
The judge also cited an assertion from the L.A. Unified School District, the nation's second-largest, that it would like to fire 350 teachers, but restrictions got in the way.
At the same time, he buttressed his ruling using testimony from witnesses called to defend the laws.
Treu wrote that one defense witness "testified that 1% to 3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective." That works out to 2,750 to 8,250 poor-performing teachers. For Treu, this was evidence of a constitutional violation.
He did not accept contrary assertions that the overall quality of the workforce compares well with other fields. Nor did he accept that making it easier to purge ineffective teachers could have unintended, negative consequences, such as detracting from recruiting and retaining top talent.
"We couldn't be more pleased with the judge's legal analysis," said Theodore Boutrous, a partner at L.A.law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who helped to overturn California's ban on gay marriage.
"Whatever happens, we can't go backward," co-counsel Marcellus McRae said. "The time of defending the status quo and business as usual — those days are over. We have to re-create a system that focuses on placing children's interests at the forefront."
Behind the litigation is Students Matter, started by tech entrepreneur Dave Welsh to pursue "high-impact" education litigation. It filed Vergara vs. California, its first suit, two years ago.
The case frequently became a tutorial on school reform and competing theories of what works best to help students.
The evidence clearly showed that, in some cases, the teacher dismissal process can be long and expensive — and that teachers have more protections against wrongful termination than other state employees.
But the state and unions argued that the laws helped ensure fairer outcomes for teachers, from which students also derive benefit.
The judge "fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric of one of America's best corporate law firms," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "What this continues to do is promote an anti-teacher narrative."
Students would benefit more, for example, if advocates focused on smaller classes and increasing the number of counselors, said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president-elect of United Teachers Los Angeles.
Poor management is to blame for districts that fail to root out incompetent instructors, union leaders said.
Experts also said that more needs to be done to rectify conditions outside of school, such as crime and poverty, that impede learning.
Vergara supporters said the verdict would restore balance.
"There is an incredible opportunity here to revise the protections afforded to students," said Timothy Daly, president of the New Teachers Project, a New York teacher hiring and research group allied with the Vergara advocates. "This verdict warms my heart because it reminds us that students and families have rights."
Treu stayed his ruling until challenges were exhausted; the unions swiftly announced an appeal. In the meantime, the Legislature could restore similar job protections, but they would have to survive court scrutiny.
Twitter: @howardblume, @stephenceasar