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Silicon Valley’s Welch Vows Nationwide Fight on Tenure

David Welch
David Welch, founder of Students Matter, center. Source: Students Matter

June 12 (Bloomberg) -- The fight to end teacher tenure is just beginning, said David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who backed a California lawsuit in which a state judge ruled the practice was unconstitutional.

Students Matter, a nonprofit group founded by Welch, is talking to other states about bringing similar lawsuits, he said. He vowed to support the California case against appeals all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“I will stay with this case all the way until it is effective in the classroom,” Welch said by telephone from Sunnyvale, California. “It’s about making sure children get access to quality teaching and that the system doesn’t create any impediment to their ability.”

Students Matter supported the suit brought by nine students against the state. California’s two biggest teachers’ unions intervened in defense of the job protection statutes. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu on June 10 found that low-income and minority students are disproportionately stuck with ineffective teachers, leading him to conclude the tenure laws violate a fundamental right to equality of education.

“We are assuming that the defendants will follow through with an appeal,” said Welch, the president and co-founder of Sunnyvale-based Infinera Corp., a maker of optical networking gear. If so, “we need to stick through this through the appellate process.”

‘Copycat Cases’

Welch wouldn’t say which states his group plans to work with next. At least three -- Florida, North Carolina and Kansas -- have chosen to repeal tenure outright, phase out tenure, or remove due process provisions, according to the Education Commission of the States.

“We’re certainly talking to other states,” Welch said. “There will be copycat cases. There will be replications of what we’ve done. I’m excited about that as a strategy for people going forward.”

Sixteen states use performance ratings to decide on tenure, the ECS reports. There are 10 states where seniority is the sole factor in determining whether a teacher is kept on during layoffs, according to the ruling.

Welch declined to comment on how the efforts would be funded going forward, calling the question a “distraction from the point of the case. To date, public education has failed the system by not making a child’s outcome the priority of this education,” he said. “That’s what this case is about.”

Billionaire Support

Billionaires including Microsoft Corp. co-founder and former Chairman Bill Gates, homebuilding and insurance entrepreneur Eli Broad, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Walton family have all been pushing for public schools to be run more like businesses. Charter schools, independent of local school districts and typically free of unionized teachers, have been one of their favorite causes.

Dean E. Vogel, the president of the California Teachers Association which opposed the lawsuit, said his group will appeal the decision.

“This lawsuit has nothing to do with what’s best for kids, but was manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools,” Vogel said in a statement.

Teachers’ Unions

The CTA and the California Federation of Teachers, which intervened to defend the legality of the statutes on behalf of their 445,000 members, have said the case was part of a broader effort to undermine organized labor. They contend that smaller classrooms and adequate resources were more relevant to improving public education than attacking teachers.

The decision is tentative, giving the unions 10 days to respond, after which the judge has another 15 days to finalize it, said Jim Finberg, a lawyer for the unions, in a telephone interview. Most judges don’t change their mind in their final rulings, he said.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington’s public schools and head of the nonprofit organization StudentsFirst, said she expects individuals in other states to follow Welch’s lead in challenging local tenure laws.

In “a lot of states across the country, people are saying ‘Is this something we could do?’” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s going to force governors and legislators to take notice and hopefully address the issues.”

‘Huge Catalyst’

“Dave and his organization have been a huge catalyst to all of this happening and the fact that they’ve garnered national attention to this,” Rhee said. “It’s not just California.”

In 2009, Rhee had laid off almost 400 teachers in the fall, after hiring more than 900 that summer, according to the National Center for Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank advocating for teacher policy reform. Rhee said that “school needs” trumped seniority in determining layoffs.

The NCTQ recommends that districts reconsider their layoff policies so that seniority isn’t the primary or sole reason.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the ruling a mandate to fix inequities in public education.

“The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students,” Duncan said in a statement.

Low-Paid Jobs

The state of California, which defended the statutes’ constitutionality separately from the teacher unions, said during the trial that tenure helps attract people to low-paid jobs in often-difficult work conditions and protects teachers from pressure by school boards when they teach controversial subjects such as evolution.

“Attracting, training and nurturing talented and dedicated educators are among the most important tasks facing every school district,” California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement. “Today’s ruling may inadvertently make this critical work even more challenging than it already is.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sonali Basak in New York at sbasak7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net Reg Gale, Chris Staiti

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