Teacher tenure was found to be unconstitutional today in California, with a judge ruling that students are "unfairly, unnecessarily disadvantaged" by the practice. On its face, Vergara v. California was the case of nine students fighting a practice designed to protect educators' academic freedom that now occasionally entrenches terrible teachers. However, the case was part of a larger shell game orchestrated by one Silicon Valley tech mogul.
Students Matter, the non-profit that funded the multi-million dollar suit, is founded and primarily funded by David Welch. Welch made his fortune in fiber optics, first serving as CTO of SDL when the company went through a $41 billion merger with JDS Uniphase in 2000 and later founding Infinera.
In 2010, Welch founded Students Matter, claiming his "passion for public education arises from his roles both as a parent of three school-aged children and as an employer in two highly successful start-ups in Silicon Valley." Students Matter was unique, as an investigation by Capital & Main discovered, because Welch "had virtually no background in education policy or any direct financial stake in the multibillion-dollar, for-profit education and standardized testing industries."
However, Welch quickly cozied up to organizations and individuals that work to privatize America's once-great education system:
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.
California's education system is in a crisis right now, and it's not because of a few inept teachers being protected from the realities of a free market. Enrollment in California's teacher preparation programs have plummeted 66% in the last decade. Budget cuts continue to make it hard for districts to hire sorely needed teachers following recession-era layoffs. All the while teacher satisfaction with their jobs has taken a dive, making the field less attractive to job seekers.
Meanwhile, Welch lives in Atherton, home to the most expensive zip code in America, where the cheapest house on the market in 2013—"a 1,194-square-foot, two-bedroom bungalow"—listed for $1.2 million. And Welch is in good company, with Eric Schmidt, Charles Schwab, and Meg Whitman all living in the Valley enclave. So with his own children facing no meaningful obstacle towards obtaining a first-rate public education, Welch "recruited" nine children primarily from low-income communities, "saying teacher job protections harm their ability to get the 'adequate' education they are promised in the state constitution."
In the ruling, Judge Treu agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that California's current laws make it impossible to get rid of the system's numerous low-performing and incompetent teachers; that seniority rules requiring the newest teachers to be laid off first were harmful; and that granting tenure to teachers after only two years on the job was farcical, offering far too little time for a fair assessment of their skills.
Further, Judge Treu said, the least effective teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools filled with low-income and minority students. The situation violates those students' constitutional right to an equal education, he determined.
If the goal is to further destabilize public education to bolster private schooling, attacking teachers and not the institutional, political challenges that face education is proving to be a good way to go about it.