By Dana Feldman
LOS ANGELES, March 4 (Reuters) - A judge refused on Tuesday to dismiss a closely watched legal challenge to California's teacher tenure laws, which education reform advocates say inflict public schools that serve poor and minority students with a disproportionate share of the worst teachers.
The lawsuit, opposed by teacher unions, claims that five state laws governing the hiring, firing and layoff of teachers have in effect discriminated against underprivileged children in kindergarten through 12th grade by denying them equal educational opportunities.
"These five statutes are violating the rights of California public school students each and every day," plaintiffs' attorney Theodore Boutrous said in court on Tuesday. "They inevitably put and keep grossly ineffective teachers in the classroom in front of students."
The lawsuit, if successful, is seen by some education reform advocates as opening a new front in the battle over how best to improve a U.S. public school system that critics say is failing too many children, especially in low-income and urban districts.
The suit was filed on behalf of nine California students in 2012 by the education advocacy group Students Matter and went to a non-jury trial in January before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. It is being handled by the same law firm that spearheaded the landmark case that succeeded in overturning California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage, Proposition 8.
Among the laws targeted by the lawsuit is one that requires school districts to either grant or deny tenure to teachers 18 months after they are hired, which plaintiffs say leads administrators to give permanent employment status to potentially problematic teachers too hastily.
The suit also challenges three laws it says make it difficult to fire low-performing tenured instructors by requiring years of documentation, dozens of procedural steps and significant amounts of public funds before dismissal.
LAST-IN, FIRST-OUT POLICY
The plaintiffs also seek to abolish the so-called "last-in, first out" statute, which requires administrators to lay off teachers based on reverse seniority.
After four weeks of testimony presented by the plaintiffs, lawyers for the state and the teachers unions filed motions seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, asserting that attorneys for the students had failed to prove their case.
They argued that the plaintiffs did not meet the legal standards for showing the statutes were so flawed as to be found unconstitutional and struck down by a court. The ill effects cited by the plaintiffs were anecdotal, isolated and the result of poor management decisions, the defendants said.
"The occasional and random assignment of a student to a bad teacher does not" meet the test for an equal protection case, Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias told Judge Rolf Treu.
James Finberg, representing the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, said the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the laws in question had caused any harm.
"The statutes don't assign teachers. Districts and principals assign teachers," he said. "The reality of students being in inner-city schools is not caused by these statutes."
The state and teachers union further argued that the laws give school administrators adequate discretion to make employment decisions that as a whole have succeeded in attracting and retaining quality instructors.
At the end of the hour-long hearing, however, the judge sided with the plaintiffs in ordering the trial to continue.
"The court finds there is sufficient evidence, credible evidence to move forward with the trial to allow the interveners and defendants to present their evidence, and we're anxious to hear from them on those issues that have been raised," Treu said.
The defendants are to resume their case on Wednesday. (Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jan Paschal)