A group of civil rights lawyers sued Los Angeles Unified and the state Wednesday, claiming that a combination of budget cuts and teacher layoffs at three low-performing middle schools violated the legal rights of students to a fair and equal education.

While the lawsuit was filed on behalf of just three schools, the case could set a precedent for how teachers are laid off statewide.

The suit claims that last year Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles, Markham Middle School in Watts and John Liechty Middle School in Pico-Union lost between half and two-thirds of their teachers, creating chaos and instability for the predominantly low-income black and Latino students.

Layoffs hit these schools harder than most due to state laws that require districts to let go of teachers based on seniority during tough budget times. These schools have a disproportionate number of newer teachers, largely due to high turnover often caused by rough working conditions.

As LAUSD gets ready for more budget cuts to close a deficit of about $640 million for 2010-11, the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California as well as the Public Counsel Law Center and the firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP wants to stop any teachers from being fired at these three schools.

"At a time when California is already 46th in the nation in per pupil spending, and about to drop lower, our state and district have twice chosen to balance their budgets by decimating the teaching corps at schools like Gompers, Liechty and Markham, schools which serve nearly exclusively students of color and from low-income families," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California.

To balance the budget this year, district officials estimate that they could lay off some 5,000 workers, including about 1,000 teachers. Last year 2,100 teachers were fired due to the district financial crisis.

However, Rosenbaum said he didn't concede that cuts had to happen, suggesting the state could find another way to balance its budget.

"They could go through their budget and cut the things that are not required by the constitution ... education is a (state) constitutional right," he said.

While LAUSD officials also advocate for better funding for schools, they are facing severe cutbacks that will require layoffs that must be done based on seniority per state law.

"Unfortunately, the layoffs of teachers and thousands of other LAUSD employees will be unavoidable for the second year in a row because of a $640 million budget deficit caused by the state's horrific financial situation," said LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines in a written statement.

"We need greater flexibility in determining how the District can keep our high-performing teachers. More importantly, this District needs adequate resources to keep more teachers in our classrooms," he said.

The lawsuit could help create a precedent that could spare inner-city schools, where there is often a larger proportion of newer teachers.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said that while he didn't oppose the lawsuit in principle, he also didn't think that singling out three schools helped the situation that thousands of teachers will be facing come March 15, the deadline for the school district to issue reduction-in-force, or layoff, notices.

"We are mindful that there are 200 other schools that will be affected," Duffy said.

According to the lawsuit, though, more than half of all the permanent teaching positions that were lost at LAUSD last year came from Gompers, Liechty and Markham middle schools.

As a result, many students were being taught by up to 10 different substitutes in the first four months of school. Students from the three schools who spoke to reporters at the news conference complained of not getting homework or even any tests during the period.

Sharail Reed, an eighth-grader at Markham Middle School, said her memories of the start of the school year were blurry.

"It feels like we are a second-class school," Sharail said. "It feels like we are not thought about as much."

Despite the claim from district officials that their hands are tied when it comes to layoffs, Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel Law Center, suggested that they were obligated to find another way.

"Our constitution demands that kids get an equal opportunity to learn," Lhamon said.

"Traditional rules cannot trump the constitution."