Tuesday's decision invalidating California's teacher tenure and dismissal laws isn't the final word on the subject.

Appeals could stretch out for years.

Or the warring parties — teachers, administrators, employers and parents — could start working now on the challenge that concluded Los Angeles Judge Rolf M. Treu's tenative ruling: "providing each child in this state with a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education."

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of nine children, Treu cited landmark rulings requiring equal access and equal funding for schools and applied the same legal principles in finding that children have a "fundamental right to equality of education."

California's unusually broad tenure protections are an obstacle — but not the only obstacle — to fulfilling that obligation, especially for poor and minority students.

Teachers are granted tenure, effectively permanent employment, after less than two years on the job. It's almost impossible to fire a tenured teacher, even for incompetence, predatory behavior or other criminal behavior. Many districts don't even try.

Moreover, layoffs must be based entirely on seniority, with no consideration of skills or effectiveness. The result: Talented teachers and their students pay the price for protecting incompetence. How could that ever be in the public's interest?

During a two-month trial, experts testified that 1-3 percent of California teachers are "grossly ineffective" and that spending a year with such a teacher can cost a classroom $1.4 million in lifetime earnings.

"The evidence is compelling," Treu wrote. "Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

Treu's decision is a bitter defeat for the teachers' unions. But he defines the perverse impacts of California's tenure protections more clearly than he explains why the system is unconstitutional.

That leaves the unions with a choice: They can fight on, hoping that a higher court will render a different ruling and knowing that state legislators are reluctant to risk the unions' ire. Or, they can acknowledge that their present job protections are far stronger than those for other public employees, including non-certificated school employees.

That could be a starting point for discussing an appropriate level of due process and the other obstacles in the path of a quality education, including language barriers, access to technology, poverty and class size. All are important and deserve consideration, but studies have repeatedly shown that teacher quality is a bigger factor in educational outcomes.

Any changes must be enacted by the Legislature, and they must survive judicial scrutiny, but the ongoing campaign for state superintendent of public instruction offers a venue for the debate.

Superintendent Tom Torlakson is allied with the teachers' unions, challenger Marshall Tuck with reform groups. They're well placed to lead a public discussion of the best way to attract — and keep — the best teachers in California classrooms.