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School Privatization Battle Heats Up in California: David Welch is the Man Behind Vergara v. California

Why is a doctoral-level electrical engineer litigating to strip state teachers of almost 100 years of legal protections?
 
 
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This article originally appeared at Capital and Main, and is reprinted here with their permission.

As the Vergara v. California trial ends its fourth week, the most conspicuous absence in court may be that of the man most responsible for bringing the education lawsuit — David Welch, the 52-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter. His Menlo Park-based nonprofit initiated Vergara and is picking up all of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and PR fees — a bill that was running nearly $3 million even before Welch’s high-powered legal team first set foot in Los Angeles Superior Court for the trial.

Vergara was filed on behalf of nine students and seeks to erase nearly a hundred years of teacher protections from the state education code that were adopted to prevent discriminatory and capricious terminations. The suit claims that five statutes addressing teacher dismissal, seniority and tenure disproportionately harm minority students in high-poverty schools by making it too difficult to fire incompetent teachers.

Attacks on teachers’ workplace protections have become familiar spectacles in California and, as recently as 2010, plaintiffs in Reed v. California used a civil rights argument to override seniority-based layoffs in three Los Angeles middle schools. The forces behind Reed and similar causes is a coalition of free-market education partisans and like-minded privatization philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation.

What may be unique about Vergara is David Welch himself, a man who prior to creating Students Matter in 2010 — the same year as the Reed case — had virtually no background in education policy or any direct financial stake in the multibillion-dollar, for-profit education and standardized testing industries.

Most websites belonging to educational privateers such as StudentsFirst, NewSchools Venture Fund or Parent Revolution present images of children at play or of hand-raising students in class. Studentsmatter.org is something altogether different. Here a reader will find no editorials about learning tools, pedagogical developments or issues facing today’s teachers. Instead, nearly every screen down to its donations page is devoted to a single subject: Vergara v. California. Far from appearing as a celebration of “school reform,” Welch’s site seems to represent a lawsuit in search of a school district.

Yet Welch and his nonprofit play a special role among a group of other nonprofits and personalities whose legal actions, school board campaigns, op-eds and overlapping advisory boards suggest a highly synchronized movement devoted to taking control of public education. The  David and Heidi Welch Foundation, for example, has given to NewSchools Venture Fund, where Welch has been an “investment partner” and which invests in both charter schools and the cyber-charter industry, and has been linked to the $9 billion-per-year textbook and testing behemoth Pearson. Welch has also supported Michelle Rhee’s education-privatizing lobby StudentsFirst, most recently with a $550,000 bequest in 2012.

StudentsFirst also turned up on an early list of Students Matter’s “advisory committee” that included ardent education privatizers Democrats for Education Reform, Parent Revolution and NewSchools Venture Fund. Both StudentsFirst and NewSchools Venture Fund also appear on a list of Vergara supporters that includes the California Charter Schools Association, along with Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent (and onetime Vergara co-defendant) John Deasy and former Oakland Unified School District superintendent Tony Smith.

The connections don’t stop there: Students Matter now includes both NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell — currently under consideration for the number two post at the federal Department of Education — as well as Parent Revolution executive director Ben Austin on its current advisory board.