Los Angeles (CNN) -- 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.
Teacher tenure ruled 'unconstitutional'
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.
The effect of bad teachers on students "shocks the conscience," the judge wrote. He cited how one expert testified that a single year in a classroom with a bad teacher costs pupils $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom.
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.
He said that "given these facts, grossly ineffective teachers are being left in the classroom because school officials do not wish to go through the time and expense to investigate and prosecute these cases."
"Based on the evidence before this court, it finds the current system required by the dismissal statutes to be so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory," the judge wrote.
The plaintiffs said the ruling promises to usher in major reforms to public education and could "create an opportunity for California to embrace a new system that's good for teachers and students," according to the nonprofit Students Matter, which has been working with the nine students who are the plaintiffs.
One of the plaintiffs' attorneys called the ruling "a victory for students, parents, and teachers across California."
"This is a monumental day for California's public education system," plaintiffs' attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. said in a statement. "By striking down these irrational laws, the court has recognized that all students deserve a quality education."
The nine students filed their lawsuit with help from the nonprofitStudents Matter, which says it sponsors "impact litigation to promote access to quality public education."
The plaintiffs alleged that tenure is granted too quickly, giving "grossly ineffective teachers" lifetime job protection, and asserted that dismissal laws are so costly and bureaucratic that districts remain stuck with bad teachers. The suit also contends that the state's "last-in, first-out" layoff laws force districts to fire top teachers and retain ineffective ones, the plaintiffs said in a statement.
Teacher unions will fight ruling
The California Teachers Association, a 325,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, said it was "disappointed" by the judge's decision "as it hurts student and educators."
The union said there is nothing unconstitutional about the laws and says it is appealing.
"We are deeply disappointed, but not surprised, by this decision. Like the lawsuit itself, today's ruling is deeply flawed. This lawsuit has nothing to do with what's best for kids, but was manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools," CTA President Dean E. Vogel said in a statement.
The state affiliate of the nation's other teachers union also denounced the court ruling.
"This suit is not pro-student. It is fundamentally anti-public education, scapegoating teachers for problems originating in underfunding, poverty, and economic inequality," California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt said.
The CTA described Students Matter as a group created by Silicon Valley multimillionaire David Welch and a private public relations firm and said the group is supported by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor "Michelle Rhee and Students First, Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin, billionaire and school privatizer Eli Broad, former lawmaker Gloria Romero, and other corporate education reformers with an interest in privatizing public education and attacking teachers' unions."
Manny Rivera, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, confirmed the roles of those individuals and groups in the lawsuit and its efforts as stated by the union.
Rhee called the ruling "groundbreaking" and a moment for the state to now build "a first-class educational system."