What's Next for the Tech Philanthropist Targeting Teacher Tenure?

A philanthropist you've never heard of just scored a stunning victory in the fight against teacher tenure. The donor is David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and the victory came yesterday when a California judge ruled the state's teacher tenure law unconstitutional because it deprived students in the state of a quality education. 

The ruling came as the result of a lawsuit brought by Students Matter, a group that Welch founded in 2010. Welch used his own money and that of other donors to hire a top tier legal team to challenge teacher tenure in California, co-led by Theodore Olson, who was George W. Bush's Solicitor General.

I've written about Welch before, noting that he's an electrical engineer by training, with a Ph.D from Cornell University. He's spent the past 30 years working in the field of fiber optics, and started his own Silicon Valley company, Infinera in 2001, manufacturing optical telecommunications systems. He got involved in education issues at the local level, with kids in public schools, and came to see teacher tenure as a major obstacle to improving schools. So he decided to do something about it. 

Welch isn't very rich by the standards of the tech industry, but he's been wealthy enough to put substantial money into Students Matter to fund the lawsuit (tax returns from his foundation show donations of some $900,000 through 2012 to Students Matter and the New Schools Venture Fund, which has worked closely with Students Matter. But Welch's total spending may be much higher than that.)  

Welch's outlay has been a drop in the bucket compared to the vast budgets of ed funders like Walton, Gates, and Broad. But the money was so effective because it was targeted in a laser-like fashion through a strategic lawsuit in California.  

And there's a good chance that Welch won't stop at California. According to the New York Times, Students Matter is

considering filing lawsuits in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas as well as other states with powerful unions where legislatures have defeated attempts to change teacher tenure laws.  

My guess is that Students Matter will become a magnet for other funders who share Welch's goal of reforming teacher tenure laws, and that ample funding will be available to finance the multiple lawsuits that Students Matter is considering.

Litigation is hardly a new tool of funders in the education space. Progressive funders have often used this tool over the years, including to challenge how schools are financed in New York State. And, of course, major foundations like Ford have spent heavily in recent decades to finance an array of legal groups that use lawsuits to advance civil rights, environmental protection, and other causes. 

But litigation has yet to be a major strategy of ed funders like Walton, Gates, and Broad. That's likely to change after yesterday's ruling in California.