Of course these kids deserve a quality education. Photographer: Robert Benson/Getty Images for Knowledge Universe
Of course these kids deserve a quality education. Photographer: Robert Benson/Getty Images for Knowledge Universe

A final lecture for the 2013-2014 school year was delivered yesterday by a California state judge, and it was a tough one: Teacher tenure, and other state laws that provide job protections to “grossly ineffective” instructors, deprive students of their right to a decent education.

It’s a lesson that should have been clear to California’s legislators long ago, given the numerous studies (such as this one, cited by the judge) showing the negative impact that ineffective teachers have on students. But in California, as in most states, elected officials have let job-protection laws stand to placate the teachers’ unions. As a result, firing an ineffective educator is -- as Judge Rolf Treu found -- a “torturous process” that can take up to 10 years and consume hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The teachers’ unions will appeal the California ruling, which grew out of a lawsuit brought by a group called Students Matter. The unions may well win, because state courts have often sided with public employees on issues involving job and benefit contracts. But California won’t be the last battleground in the war; this victory will embolden similar efforts in other states.

The evidence, Treu wrote, “shocks the conscience.” Tenure and other state laws (including a law requiring layoffs to be based on the “last in, first out” principle) not only affect the right to a quality education, he wrote, but also “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

This, too, should have been obvious to state legislators. For decades, ineffective teachers have found refuge in schools with poor and minority populations, where principals find it harder to attract top quality talent and are often stuck filling open positions with tenured teachers who can’t find work elsewhere.

The decision cited a passage from Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case, which found that education “is a right which must be made available on equal terms.” That presents a direct challenge to the teachers unions’ traditional allies: urban Democrats.

Not all of them support the status quo. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago's public schools, has long supported more teacher accountability and called yesterday's decision “a mandate” to fix a broken school employment system. And teachers themselves are aware of the problem. In a 2010 national survey, two-thirds of teachers agreed that “the union sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom.”

Rather than fight to the death to preserve tenure, union leaders would better serve their members -- and, not incidentally, students -- by working with state legislators on reforms that protect teachers from indiscriminate or punitive firing. At the same time, legislators should not sit back and wait for judges to do their jobs for them. Civil-rights leaders should demand immediate action. And more teachers -- who recognize that these laws tarnish their profession -- should speak out.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.