Features & Columns

Tech Guru takes on Public Schools

Sunnyvale activist sues state, Alum Rock school district over tenure rules
Dave Welch BAD APPLES: Dave Welch, a co-founder of digital optics company Infinera in Sunnyvale, wants to change the laws on how underperforming teachers in public schools are removed from their jobs.

Gary Rubinstein an award-winning high school math instructor and Teach for America alumnus, compares teachers to professional baseball players. The best players get a hit about 30 percent of the time, and the worst hit a little more than 20 percent of the time. For the most part, he says, "the best teachers aren't that far above average, and the worst aren't that far below average."

But if Dave Welch, a Sunnyvale tech entrepreneur, and his band of attorneys have their way, none of the below-average teachers in California will soon have a place to play ball.

On May 14, Welch's relatively new nonprofit organization, Students Matter, recruited seven kids currently enrolled in California public schools—two of whom attend schools in the Bay Area—for a lawsuit that challenges five California education statutes related to the hiring and firing of teachers. The lawsuit seeks to improve "overall teacher effectiveness" by striking down "outdated state laws that prevent the recruitment, support and retention of effective teachers."

Defendants include Gov. Jerry Brown, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson, school districts in Los Angeles and San Jose, the state Department of Education and the state itself.

Welch—who has three children, one of whom just graduated from high school—says he started taking an active role in public education reform a little more than a decade ago, but it wasn't until the end of 2010 that he put some skin in the game by starting Students Matter with six figures of his own money. "The priorities of the kids aren't valued," he says. "I went to a buddy and said, 'This is so wrong. There's got to be something illegal about it.' And we think there is."

Now, with more than 100 other financial contributors to the cause, who Welch says have matched his initial investment, he believes Students Matter's lawsuit has an opportunity to effect real change without going the more expensive route of a ballot measure, which would certainly face formidable union opposition from the California Teachers Association.

"The education of our masses is the civil rights issue of our generation," Welch says. "I believe the vast majority of teachers in the system are passionate and in there to do the right thing, but that doesn't mean we should allow the few percentage points of people who are abusive and just in the wrong jobs."

Teachers in California have a relatively short probationary period, about 18 months, before being offered permanent employment. Student performance aside, permanent employees are also entitled to lengthy due process prior to termination. In the event of districtwide layoffs, a "Last In, First Out" (LIFO) policy is used to determine which teachers are given pink slips. California is one of only 11 states that mandates seniority-based teacher layoffs.

Last year, San Jose's Alum Rock Union Elementary School District (ARUESD)—named in the lawsuit—was in the bottom quartile of Santa Clara County's elementary schools when measured by students' proficiency in language arts and math. Scores have since improved, but one of the lawsuits' arguments, that the poorest students are being underserved, carries some statistical truth. Four out of five children in the district come from low-income families.

But ARUESD Board of Trustees President Esau Herrera says that the Students Matter lawsuit is forcing public school districts to use their precious resources in an unnecessary legal battle.

"I think the parents that are being used as plaintiffs are misguided," Herrera says. "They are sincere in their desire to improve public education, but [they're] clearly misguided. I'd rather spend money on our kids; they'd rather spend it on lawyers."

Fighting Back

A little more than two years ago, Karen Martinez decided enough was enough after seeing some of her children fail classes and barely graduate. A vocal critic at Alum Rock Union Elementary School District meetings, the mother of seven had her second youngest child, Daniella, 10, transfer to Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy.

The results were almost immediate, Karen says, as Daniella went from being categorized as special learning to reading at a sixth-grade level this summer. Daniella just finished the fifth grade.

"We're not the only family this has happened to," says Karen, who works for Rocketship but stresses that her career has nothing to do with her family's involvement in the Students Matter lawsuit. "The quality of your education is determined by your zip code. Race shouldn't matter, your economic status shouldn't matter, but the reality is it does. If you live in any area of Santa Clara County outside of east San Jose, you're going to get a better education. We just need to do something to change that."

In March, about 20,000 teachers statewide received notification that they might not have a job next year. Schools sent out fewer pink slips than anticipated, but that was largely because districts have already eliminated enrichment programs and increased class sizes. This year in Santa Clara County school districts, 311 full-time employees received pink slips. Because so many teachers' jobs are on the chopping block, many of whom are just starting their careers, seniority-based layoffs are a particularly contentious issue.

In other states, a mathematical formula relying on student test scores is used to determine how much "value" a teacher adds to how much a student learns. That score is then used as part of an evaluation system to determine which teachers are most effective, regardless of seniority, in case of layoffs.

This methodology is not without flaws, though. School officials in Washington, D.C., made "value-added" the largest component of their teacher evaluation system, at 50 percent. Classroom observations, peer collaboration and schoolwide testing trends made up the other half.

Under this evaluation system, 206 D.C. teachers were fired for poor performance last year, some of whom were held in high regard by their colleagues and had good, if not excellent, evaluations from their qualitative classroom observations. Two weeks ago, D.C. took steps to ensure that the weight given to "value-added" will be reduced from 50 to 30 percent in future evaluations.

Josh Lipshutz, an attorney for Students Matter lawsuit, emphasizes that the lawsuit is not trying to impose value-added or any other kind of methodology to determine teacher effectiveness. "All we want is for effectiveness to be taken into account in a meaningful way," he says. To do this, the lawsuit wants to strip down tenure standards.

The Students Matter lawsuit is only the latest in a long line of public education lawsuits that Joe Di Salvo, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, and others describe as "teacher bashing." The number of teaching credentials issued in California has fallen every year for the past five years, and Di Salvo thinks that the decline is not entirely due to salary.

Of course, there are examples in which this is rightly so. An LA Weekly report, published in February 2010, found that Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) spent $3.5 million from 2000 to 2010 trying to dismiss seven employees for inadequate classroom performance. The legal battles required to dismiss underperforming teachers were often so lengthy and expensive that the district opted to pay them off in exchange for their voluntary departure.

These kinds of abuses of the system have become a cause c–lbre for charter school advocates and privately funded groups that can afford to wage legal battles against public schools.

"I've had lots of people tell me we're bucking the system," Welch says, "but I think the future of our society depends on our ability to educate kids. I can't think of anything more worth fighting than to fight that battle."

Josh Koehn contributed to this report.