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By Edvard Pettersson
Jun 10, 2014 9:01 PM PT

California’s two biggest teacher unions lost the first round in the broadest court challenge yet to state laws protecting teachers’ jobs, setting the stage for what could be a lengthy appeal.

A state judge in Los Angeles yesterday ruled that statutes giving public school teachers lifetime employment after less than two years on the job and making it time-consuming and expensive to fire bad teachers are unconstitutional. The lawsuit was brought by a group of nine students backed by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu in his tentative ruling found that low-income and minority students are disproportionately stuck with “grossly” ineffective teachers, leading him to conclude the challenged laws violate the students’ fundamental right to equality of education.

“Our public education system is failing our children because it has stopped putting their needs and their success above all else,” David Welch, the founder of the nonprofit Students Matter organization that backed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “This case was designed to change that.”

Welch is the president and co-founder of Sunnyvale, California-based Infinera Corp. (INFN), a maker of optical networking gear. The entrepreneur, who has said “impact litigation” will be a more effective way than politics to bring about change, has joined other business leaders in a nationwide fight with teacher unions over how to better educate students.

The two California teacher unions, which intervened to defend the legality of the statutes on behalf of their 445,000 members, have said the case was part of a broader effort to undermine organized labor. They contend smaller classrooms and adequate resources were more relevant to improving public education than attacking teachers.

“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,” California Teachers Association President Dean E. Vogel said in a statement. “We plan to appeal this decision.”

Billionaire Push

Billionaires including Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) co-founder and former Chairman Bill Gates, homebuilding and insurance entrepreneur Eli Broad, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT)’s Walton family have been pushing for public schools to be run more like businesses. Charter schools, independent of local school districts and typically free of unionized teachers, have been one of their favorite causes.

“We are confident this ruling will be reversed on appeal,” Jim Finberg, a lawyer for the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, said in a phone interview. Treu’s decision “ignores overwhelming evidence the current laws are working.”

The unions have 10 days to respond to the tentative ruling, after which the judge has another 15 days to finalize it, Finberg said. Most judges don’t change their mind in the final ruling, Finberg said.

Teacher Unions

In North Carolina, a teacher union last year filed a lawsuit in court to block an overhaul of the state’s tenure laws. On June 6, a judge agreed with the union that the overhaul was unconstitutional to the extent that it pertained to teachers who already had earned tenure.

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