Tenure opponent says public schools must improve

JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The man behind the successful lawsuit to declare California’s teacher-tenure laws unconstitutional is a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who says he has no gripe with teachers unions, only with incompetent teachers.

David Welch, an electrical engineer who holds over 130 patents and has made a fortune merging and creating high-tech companies, began to turn his attention to education in 2011 when he founded the nonprofit group Students Matter. The group was the driving financial force behind a student lawsuit that led to Tuesday’s Superior Court ruling throwing out tenure protection for California teachers in grades kindergarten through 12.

It was his experience as both a parent and an employer, Welch said Tuesday, that led him to form Students Matter and take on California’s tenure laws and its powerful teachers unions.

“I think the honest, truthful, simple answer is I’m a huge believer in education and education is an important part of our society and we were just missing opportunities to educate our children,” said Welch, 53. “These laws are, I don’t know what else to say, other than they are wrong.”

Welch, who lives in the wealthy Northern California community of Atherton, said he came to that conclusion both as a parent of three children who have attended public schools as well as an employer who needs a well-educated workforce to survive.

“But I think pretty much all citizens see this,” he told The Associated Press. “We see it in the percentage of people who are uneducated who are incarcerated.”

Welch said his school-reform effort has nothing to do with going after teachers unions, which have dismissed it as an assault on teachers by millionaires and corporate interests.

“Inherently it is not a battle with the teachers union,” he said. “It’s a battle with the education system. Unfortunately, the teachers union has decided that the rights of the child are not their priority.”

Welch, who grew up in Maryland, has said he and his six siblings attended public schools. Although he could afford to send his own children to private school now, he decided not to do so.

“Our society doesn’t work without a strong public school system,” Welch said.

After earning a Ph.D. from Cornell University in electrical engineering, he moved to California to work as a research scientist for the fiber-optics firm SDL. After rising to a top executive position, he helped lead the company’s $41 billion merger with JDS Uniphase in 2001. That same year, he founded the Infinera Company, which manufactures optical telecommunications systems.

Welch also sits on the board of the national environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he and his wife, Heidi, run a charitable foundation.

“One of my edicts is to go back and help society,” he said of taking on the school-reform effort.

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