Sometimes it seems like the education arena is just one big fight between rich people and teachers unions. But rarely has that fight ended up in a courtroom, which is exactly what's happening right now in Los Angeles.
California's laws governing teacher tenure and dismissal are being challenged in a lawsuit, Vergara v. California, brought by nine public school children in the state. A victory in the suit would make it easier to fire ineffective teachers, a key goal of many education reformers.
Of course, those nine kids aren't really bringing the lawsuit; a wealthy donor is, in effect. A nonprofit called Students Matter has orchestrated the suit, and that group in turn was created by a successful tech entrepreneur named David Welch. He founded Students Matter in 2010 and hired the top tier legal team bringing the suit, co-led by Theodore Olson, who was George W. Bush's Solicitor General.
Welch is typical of a lot of wealthy techies and Wall Streeters who get into education issues—often aligning themselves with conservatives like Olson—in that he's not especially ideological himself. There is no record that Welch has ever made a campaign contribution to either party and Welch's one big organizational affiliation is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he sits on the board.
Welch is 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.
Welch didn't become a billionaire from his company or anything, but definitely has done very well, and created a foundation with his wife, Heidi, which had about $2 million in assets in 2010 before he started Students Matter. The biggest grant the Welches made in 2010 was to NRDC, for $250,000. But, tellingly, many of the other grants went to education, including a local foundation supporting Silicon Valley public schools.
And that's how Welch got into the teacher tenure fight, through his own involvement in the public schools his kids attended. Welch was appalled at how hard it is in California to get rid of incompetent teachers. He decided to not only take up the cause of changing the law, but to focus on litigation as his means of doing so.
Behind Students Matter is the Students First Foundation, which Welch created to fund the lawsuit. The most recent 990 for that foundation isn't available, but as of 2011, Welch was the dominant funder, although there were a few other much smaller funders. In 2012, Welch didn't give his usual big donation to NRDC and instead gave $500,000 to the Students First Foundation. That's on top of $200,000 in 2011 and another $200,000 in that same year to New Schools Venture, which has been a close collaborator.
It's quite possible that bigger money from donors other than Welch is now flowing into Students Matter. Otherwise, though, the picture that emerges here is that of a single wealthy, but not mega-wealthy, guy almost singlehandedly bankrolling the most potent challenge in years to tenure teacher in California.
The California Teachers Association argues that the lawsuit is both destructive and unnecessary, because reform efforts are already underway to make it easier to dismiss teachers. I'll leave it to others to sift through those arguments.
What I will say here is that Welch's laser-like philanthropy is yet one more example of how money can dramatically amplify the viewpoint of a single individual if deployed strategically. And when the money is targeted at efforts to change public education, it raises profound questions about the role of money in our democracy.
The public schools, after all, have long been our most democratic institution. What does it say when one rich guy may be able to engineer a big change in this sector in the nation's largest state?