2014 Suing for Reform
Philanthropists have been funding lawsuits as a way to improve public policies for more than a century. Booker T. Washington secretly financed the Giles v. Harris case back in 1903, and throughout the rest of his life paid for other litigation aimed at undoing racial disenfranchisement (see details in 1903 entry).
In this same spirit, Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch spent several million dollars between 2011 and 2014 building a court case that California’s teacher-tenure laws—which grant permanent employment after just 18 months on the job, make it nearly impossible to fire even the most terrible teachers, and require school districts to lay teachers off based on seniority rather than competence—deprive students of the right to be educated as guaranteed by the state constitution.
Welch and his wife first tried traditional education philanthropy, giving money to bring new teaching methods and technology into schools. They soon realized that in many public schools, incompetent teachers made necessary educational improvements impossible. So in 2011 they founded a group called Students Matter and gathered facts about the forces blocking school reform.
Eventually David Welch found nine students who said their education suffered after they were stuck in classrooms with poor teachers. He hired a top-flight legal team to help them assemble a court case. He was also savvy enough to fund an accompanying public-relations campaign to fend off the massive counterattack by teacher unions that predictably followed.
In 2014 a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that “there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms” and that this causes thousands of students to fall years behind in math and reading. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” wrote Judge Rolf Treu in his Vergara v. State of California decision striking down seniority-based job protections for unionized teachers.
The state appealed, a process that could take three years. Almost immediately, however, other philanthropists and education reformers began to consider similar donor-funded lawsuits in states like New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and elsewhere, aiming to eliminate rigid teacher tenure.
Welch’s funding is part of a longer tradition of public-interest law philanthropy on behalf of educational improvement. Donor-funded groups like the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute have litigated over many years to protect school choice, educational tax credits, charter schools, and other elements of school reform.
- Philanthropy magazine reporting, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/k_12_education/suing_for_reform
- Sponsor of Vergara case, studentsmatter.org
- Institute for Justice educational litigation ij.org/cases/schoolchoice