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The USA's two largest teachers unions vowed to challenge a judge's decision Tuesday that declared tenure and other job protections unconstitutional for California teachers. The case could reverberate across the USA as other states look to overhaul their systems for hiring, paying and retaining teachers.

Ruling in a case brought by nine California students, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said the current system discriminates against minority and low-income students in K-12 classrooms, saying there was "no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms."

He agreed with the students' claims that California tenure laws result in ineffective teachers "obtaining and retaining permanent employment" in schools that predominantly serve low-income and minority students.

The lawsuit asked the courts to strike down several laws providing teachers with tenure, seniority-based job protection and other benefits. During the trial, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy testified that it can take more than two years on average to fire an incompetent tenured teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so, he said, can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.

The students said California's teacher tenure system, which allows only two years for evaluation before a teacher is hired permanently, does not provide sufficient time to weigh a teacher's effectiveness.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, called the ruling "deeply flawed" and said NEA would support a California Teachers Association appeal. "Today's ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching," said Van Roekel, a former math teacher in Arizona.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said the case pits students' needs against teachers'. "This is a sad day for public education," she said. "While this decision is not unexpected, the rhetoric and lack of a thorough, reasoned opinion is disturbing. For example, the judge believes that due process is essential but his objection boils down to his feeling that two years is not long enough for probation."

Weingarten also said the ruling ignores a larger problem in school quality: full and fair funding.

"It's surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children," she said in a statement.

Eric Hines, vice president of the California Teachers Association, said the union was disappointed with the ruling.

"It doesn't do anything to improve student learning in California," he said.

Hines said the state's tenure rules help foster stability in schools.

"They help create an environment where teachers can teach and can speak out for their students, even when it's unpopular, without fear of retaliation," he said.

The unions' reactions put them at odds with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said the nine student plaintiffs are "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."

Duncan said the ruling "is a mandate to fix these problems." In a statement, he said he hoped the ruling would help "build 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 trial represented the latest battle in a nationwide movement to abolish or toughen the standards for granting teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences during layoffs. Dozens of states have moved in recent years to get rid of or raise the standards for obtaining such protections.

The lawsuit, Vergara v. California, was brought by Beatriz Vergara and eight other students who said they were saddled with teachers who let classrooms get out of control, came to school unprepared and in some cases told them they'd never make anything of themselves.

The judge stayed implementation of the ruling pending appeals. The California Attorney General's office said it was evaluating its legal options.

The lawsuit was backed by wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch's non-profit group Students Matter, which assembled a high-profile legal team including Boutrous, who represented President George W. Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 recount of Florida presidential ballots. Welch, who made a fortune in corporate acquisitions, says he founded Students Matter because of a passion for public education, adding that both he and his three children have attended public schools.

Contributing: The Associated Press; KXTV-TV, Sacramento

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