(Reuters) - A union-backed bill in the California legislature would expand tenure protections for public school teachers to include other employees, despite a court ruling last week that the practice is unconstitutional and hurts students.

The measure comes as officials in the most populous U.S. state continue to wrestle with whether to appeal the ruling by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, which overturned five laws meant to protect teachers' jobs, saying the protections make it too hard to fire ineffective teachers and inadvertently lead to placing the worst teachers at schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

"The issue remains that there are a number of teachers, nurses, counselors - folks who take care of kids every single day - who don't have basic protections," said Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill's author. "So while we may have a future compromise or fight over the dismissal process, this about having some basic protections."

Her bill, which passed the Assembly and was set for a vote Wednesday in the Senate's education committee, would require small school districts to grant tenure to credentialed teachers after three years on the job. Districts with fewer than 250 students are not currently required to grant tenure. It also would require all districts to grant tenure to vocational education teachers, nurses, psychologists and counselors after three years.

Republican Senate leader Bob Huff said the bill "represents a step backwards from the court ruling," which declared the state's practice of offering tenure to teachers in large district's lifetime jobs after two years to be unconstitutional.

The ruling, a major setback for teacher unions that could also have national implications, came in response to a lawsuit complaining that tenure and other protections hurt poor and minority students by effectively funneling incompetent teachers to schools in disadvantaged areas at disproportional rates.

The ruling won praise from the Obama administration at a time when the politics of education reform are changing, with more Democrats signing onto the notion, spelled out in the lawsuit and supported by many Republicans, that it is too difficult to fire incompetent teachers in California.

Gonzalez said she addressed the concerns raised in the legal case by amending her bill to make the expanded protections kick in after three years instead of two.

Teachers in large districts would continue to become tenured after two years, she said. The bill was sponsored by unions representing teachers and other school employees.