| June 13
June 13 Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch
says it was his three children who motivated him to spend almost
$2 million challenging California's teacher tenure laws.
Welch, an engineer with at least 130 patents, is the force
behind Students Matter, the non-profit organization whose
lawsuit against the state succeeded this week when a California
judge struck down rules protecting teacher jobs.
"My two older kids had this incredibly inspiring middle
school science teacher, from the first day of school they were
coming home and doing experiments in the back yard," the
53-year-old Welch said in an interview with Reuters. "But one
child had a horrible experience and didn't learn to read on
time, which hurt him academically and hurt him emotionally."
Welch declined to say whether his son's negative experience,
or his other children's positive experience, happened at a
public school or a private school. They have attended both. He
declined to give their names or ages. None of them were part of
the lawsuit and they are now in high school and college.
After a two-month trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge
Rolf Treu concluded on Tuesday that five California statutes
that protect the job security of public school teachers also
hurt poor and minority students at disproportional rates, in
violation of the state Constitution. Treu stayed his decision,
anticipating an appeal.
Overturned were such rules as "last in, first out," which
requires that teachers with the least experience be laid off
first during cutbacks, along with rules granting teachers tenure
after two years of work and making it difficult to fire them for
The suit, Vergara v. California, named for a Los Angeles
high school student, claimed that incompetent teachers were
often transferred to schools in poor neighborhoods because it
was hard to fire them. New teachers, who often start in
disadvantaged schools, are the first to be laid off, causing
turmoil for children, according to the suit.
Welch's critics say the lawsuit is an attempt to weaken
teachers' unions, disguised as a reform effort.
"Here is someone who shows up out of nowhere with his
millions, claiming to have the best interests of disadvantaged
students at heart, and what he's proposing is to take away
rights from one group in order to create rights for another
group," said Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation
of Teachers, one of two unions that defended California tenure
laws alongside the state.
Welch earned his fortune overseeing the $41 billion merger
between optical communications company SDL, where he was vice
president in charge of corporate development, and JDS Uniphase
in 2000. He's now president and board member at Infinera, an
optical telecommunications system manufacturer based in
Sunnyvale, California, that he co-founded in 2001. Welch's total
compensation as of fiscal year 2013 was $2,178,886, according to
Welch, who lives in Atherton, California, in a home valued
at more than $10 million, according to property records, gave
Students Matter an interest-free loan of almost $500,000 and
with his wife, Heidi, contributed more than $300,000 to get the
group off the ground in 2011. In 2012, he loaned the group
almost $950,000, tax filings show.
"My goal isn't just to win a court case, my goal is to
create the best experience in the classroom, and Students
Matter's goal is to deliver that experience," Welch said.
Welch grew up as the youngest of seven children in Severna
Park, Maryland, about 20 miles south of Baltimore, where he
graduated from the local public high school and remembers his
science classes vividly, particularly a teacher who emphasized
hands-on experiences over textbooks and blackboard lessons.
He earned his degree in electrical engineering from the
University of Delaware in 1981 and his doctorate in the same
subject from Cornell University is 1985.
"He was one of those guys who just had everything going
right," said Clifford Pollock, director of Cornell's School of
Electrical and Computer Engineering, who was a professor when he
met Welch 30 years ago.
Welch said his decision to sue California -- rather than
found a charter school, sponsor curricula development or offer
direct financial support, for example - was based on math. There
are 6 million California public school students and no other
approach was scalable.
"The probability of you hitting a grossly ineffective
teacher is actually pretty high, even though the percentage [of
ineffective teachers] might be modest," Welch said.
Treu noted in his decision that a witness for the defense
estimated that between 1 percent and 3 percent of California
teachers were grossly ineffective, meaning there are at least
2,750 such teachers in the school system.
The board of Students Matter includes an assistant secretary
for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education under
President Barack Obama; a former Oakland, California, schools
superintendent, and venture capitalists Arthur Rock and Ted
Finding a legal strategy to challenge tenure rules was up to
lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. There, attorneys Theodore
Boutrous and Theodore Olson were litigating against a
voter-approved California ban on same-sex marriage when they
heard Welch wanted to mount a tenure challenge.
Boutrous, a corporate attorney who made donations supporting
the Obama campaign and other Democratic candidates, and Olson, a
solicitor general during the George W. Bush administration, both
attended public schools.
"We felt very strongly that public schools are a public
platform for everyone to use to become successful in society and
the economy," Boutrous said.
Now, they are looking at building similar cases in other
states, Boutrous said.
Welch was less clear about his plans.
"This happens to be the first case," he said. "Whether there
will be other cases, I don't know."
(Reporting by Amanda Becker, Laila Kearney and Sharon
Bernstein. Editing by Cynthia Johnston and John Pickering)