- - Thursday, January 30, 2014

California is a national trendsetter, and usually not in a good way. A trial now under way in Los Angeles gives the state a chance to redeem itself by changing a system that offers iron-clad job security to the laziest and most incompetent teachers.

David F. Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with deep pockets, has hired a team of distinguished lawyers to take on the state’s powerful teachers unions. These defenders of mediocrity insist that tenure and seniority are necessary to retain teachers in what they say are “low-paying” jobs.

Good pay for good teachers is always a good thing, but it’s a myth that public-school teachers are typically underpaid. In many places they are paid well.

Teacher tenure is actually the cargo on the gravy train that never throws off passengers, no matter how loud, rude or useless. Mr. Welch, turning the tables on liberals, challenges this arrangement as a violation of the civil rights of students.

Minority students stuck in inner-city schools usually wind up with the less-qualified and less-motivated teachers, the lawsuit contends, dooming many of these kids to a lifetime of economic disadvantage. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who talks a lot about fairness and the abuse of civil rights, won’t stand up for the rights of these disadvantaged kids, so someone else had to do it.

Mr. Welch hired Ted Olson, the former U.S. solicitor general, and Theodore Boutros, who participated in the successful challenge of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriage. The liberals who cheered them then are jeering now.

On the other side are the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, which represent the state’s 400,000 teachers, the Democratic politicians who support them, and millions of dollars in dues that fund their political campaigns.

“When schoolchildren start paying union dues,” a famous union organizer once said, “that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

Few professions offer the job protection teachers have enjoyed since tenure was first adopted by New Jersey in 1909. James Finberg, an attorney for the California teachers unions, observes that Los Angeles has increased the number of teachers it has fired from just 10 in 1999 to 99 in 2012, proving that the status quo is OK.

That’s not much of an argument, since it’s still a minuscule fraction of the city’s 45,000 teachers.

If successful, the suit could be a game-changer in American education. Using the civil rights law to break the public-sector union’s stranglehold on the system would be a good thing for children of all races, colors and creeds.