A JUDGE who struck down California’s laws on teacher tenure and layoffs said the decision was based solely on the legal aspects of the case but added that he was mindful of the intense political debate about these issues. It is “beyond question,” he wrote, that there will be further political discourse. We certainly hope so. The issues about education equality laid bare by this groundbreaking ruling cry out for new ways of thinking.

In a decision handed down Tuesday, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that state laws on the hiring, firing and job security of teachers violate the state’s constitutional commitment to provide “a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education.” The 16-page ruling found that job protections afforded to teachers violate the rights of minority and low-income students to an equal education because they are the ones disproportionately stuck with the incompetent teachers who are hard, if not impossible, to fire. Constitutional rights in education typically have been tied to equitable funding, so the judge entered new territory by declaring a basic right to an effective teacher.

The trial featured powerful testimony about the effect of incompetent teachers on students. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” the judge wrote.

Beatriz Vergara, a 15-year-old student and plaintiff in Vergara v. California, told of one teacher who slept in class, another who let students smoke marijuana and another who told students, mainly Latino, that they would be cleaning houses for a living. Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy testified it costs in excess of $250,000 to $450,000 to get rid of a bad teacher. Harvard University education and economics Professor Thomas Kane testified that a student assigned to an ineffective math teacher in Los Angeles loses 11.73 months of learning per year compared to a student with a teacher of average effectiveness. Teachers themselves decried “last in, first out” policies that mean in a layoff districts have to keep the teachers with the most seniority, even if a newer teacher is better.

The ruling will be appealed, but it’s really up to school officials and lawmakers — and not only in California — to bring sanity to policies that confer a guarantee of lifetime employment to teachers regardless of the job they do. Teachers should still have due process rights that protect them from arbitrary action or abuse, but it’s time that the rights of their students be a part of the calculation.

Marcellus McRae, plaintiff's co-lead counsel is joined with members of Students Matter, a national educational non-profit organization, that helped the plaintiffs on the Vergara v. California lawsuit. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

We recognize that simply making it easier to fire ineffective teachers won’t correct the ills of public education or ensure better student achievement. In assailing the ruling, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted that Judge Treu he made no mention of poverty, school segregation or the other external or internal factors that impact student achievement. She is right that these issues need to be tackled. But it’s hard to see how keeping bad teachers in the classroom helps solve any of them.