Billionaires Behind the Attack on Public Education in California Tenure Suit

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch makes comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Welch founded the anti-tenure organization Students Matter. A judge struck down tenure and other job protections for California's public school teachers as unconstitutional, saying such laws harm students, especially poor and minority ones, by saddling them with bad teachers. In a landmark decision that could influence the gathering debate over tenure across the country, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in ruling that students have a fundamental right to equal education. 

Last week, something happened in a Los Angeles courtroom that rocked the education policy world. A judge declared due process rights for teachers—commonly known as "tenure" unconstitutional in the state of California in the case Vergara v. California, so named for one of the several students named as plaintiffs.

Virtually everything about the Vergara trial is misleading, starting with the trial’s name. Though my heart goes out to the students whose district has likely not offered them anything close to the educational resources and opportunities they deserve, this trial has nothing to do with fixing what ails them. Indeed, some of the people bankrolling it, like billionaire Eli Broaddonated millions to a campaign against the Proposition 30 millionaires’ tax that passed as a ballot measure in 2012, and is designed to restore much needed funding to cash-strapped public schools. Then there’s billionaire David Welch.

Vergara v. California really ought to be known as the Welch trial, after the Silicon Valley tycoon whose “lawsuit in search of a district” finally found the one where these students reside, in the City of Los Angeles.

It’s bad enough that deep-pocketed special interest groups have been able to use their money to corrupt the electoral process, and to poison public policy conversations to their advantage via their superior access to media and policymakers. It’s their well-funded message machine, after all, that distorted the meaning of words like “tenure” in the first place, tricking Americans into turning against the idea of employees being considered innocent until proven guilty of incompetence or wrongdoing on the job. (Let’s hope they don’t suddenly turn against due process in the rest of our justice system, lest we all end up not only wrongfully jobless but wrongfully imprisoned.)

But now, thanks to the Welch trial—and the others to come, if the ad campaign just launched by hired gun Rick Berman has its intended effect— we see that not only are the executive and legislative branches of government up for sale, but the judiciary may well be, too.

With this verdict, the message of the Welch trial outcome is clear: If you have enough money and an ideological grudge, you, too, can use America’s children as props—and our public courts as a stage—to engage in destructive acts of political theater. Unfortunately for us, these are essential rights the courts are playing with, rights whose abrogation will have real consequences for this nation’s children. And let’s be clear: The fear of being fired for no good reason is not a thing of the past, as the Welches of the world would have you believe.

Among those who do not have due-process protections, including pre-tenure teachers, instructors in most charter schools, educators in most private schools, and in states and districts without tenure, we have many living examples of why the due process guaranteed by tenure still matters. In my past life as a well-regarded but non-tenured teacher, I learned the hard way that questioning a principal for asking teachers to do things that are against students’ interests can cost you your career. (Fortunately for me, I established a new career speaking out against injustice. There’s not always money but, sadly, there’s always work.)

It is still the case that tenureless teachers risk being fired for speaking out against cheating, marrying the person they love, and getting pregnant, among other things. A profession that already sheds up to half of its ranks every five years can hardly afford these losses, and neither can the children and communities they serve.

Completely ignoring these facts, as well as the simple truth that several of the plaintiffs aren’t even taught by tenured teachers, Judge Treu’s transparently biased verdict ensured that considerable time, energy, and money will be spent appealing this attack on teachers’ rights, and fighting copycat cases that are to sure to follow. This will rob us of time and resources that could be spent improving recruitment and development of teachers, or dismantling poverty, or fighting inequality, or ameliorating inequities in school resources, or any number of things that actually impact student learning.

Not one student will benefit from this. Neither will the rest of our society, if we continue to allow an advantaged few to use our court system to undermine our ability to defend the rights that make us a free people. As outspoken teachers are already finding out, what good are First Amendment rights if you have to choose between exercising them and paying your bills? If there are willing judges out there, and enough public relations people for hire, what’s to stop any industry from launching faux-populist crusades to overturn long-standing rights, or to prevent the establishment of important new ones?

This case will be appealed, as it should be. But if our courts become a playground for deep-pocketed ideologues who only pretend to stand up for the disadvantaged, what will that mean for groups that really do defend society’s underdogs?


All the teachers I've talked to about tenure seem to live in a bubble. Yes, without tenure you put your job at risk if you do something to annoy your employer. That's the way it is for every "at will" worker in America, which is about 65% of the workforce (of the rest, 15% are civil servants, another 15% have specific language in their hiring contracts, and the rest work for private employers under union rules). What makes teachers entitled to different treatment? Until you can make a convincing story for that, you're not going to get any public sympathy.

Why don't you turn your question around and ask why other Americans can't have reasonable job security? The Europeans seem to manage quite well, thank you.

Teachers are not entitled to *different* treatment. They are entitled to *decent* treatment, and so is the rest of the workforce. The outrage is not that teachers have these protections, it's that so many other people don't.

"Though my heart goes out to the students whose district has likely not offered them anything close to the educational resources and opportunities they deserve, this trial has nothing to do with fixing what ails them."


"Not one student will benefit from this."

These are pretty strong claims that are not justified by the actual arguments that the author makes. At no point does she concede that there are serious PROBLEMS with the tenure system that currently exists in CA public schools--the reason why this case has the support that it does is because it accords with many folks personal experience with public education systems that allow incompetent/lazy tenured teachers to remain in their workplaces, and/or with administrators unable or unwilling to get rid of them.

The arguments raised appear to suggest:
1. "tricking Americans into turning against the idea of employees being considered innocent until proven guilty of incompetence or wrongdoing on the job". Tenure is about workplace protections--billionaires are robbing Americans of rights to due process. This is a distortion of what many people understand the issues to be--namely, the excessive process that needs to be undertaken in order to get rid of a non-performing teacher who has acquired tenure. Check out The very fact of a continuing contract (that is--offering tenure)--pretty unique in professional settings--is what makes this process so onerous in practice.

2. "It is still the case that tenureless teachers risk being fired for speaking out ... A profession that already sheds up to half of its ranks every five years can hardly afford these losses." I make the observation that the reason those teachers are leaving is primarily about crappy, impossible conditions to work in with little if any support (e.g., see author's comment at the top of this comment), rather than tenure or its lack. The exceptions to this lie in cases where newer teachers see non-performing tenured colleagues stay in classrooms or when newer non-tenured faculty are the first to be let go in funding squeezes. Those add additional frustrations.

3. Rich folks are hijacking the system for their own purposes, to rob Americans of their rights. Is there a right to have a continuous contract for employment services? In this case, I grant that the union and the school district has the right to contractually set their own grounds for employment--and if they want tenure as a condition of the job, then I think it makes sense for union and district to bargain over tenure as a condition of employment. But, we are talking here about STATE LAWS that guarantee tenure protection--is that right? These laws serve the interest of one constituency and it may or may not be the case that they serve other interested constituencies well.

So, even if these arguments are true--and I don't see how they are true on the evidence and arguments provided, the author doesn't even bother to show how these claims lead her to make her claims with which I started this comment.

There is a way to argue for the benefits of accountable tenure, but the author's approach isn't helpful.

Well done, cas. In addition, Ms. Stevens ends up ironically arguing here (in the third paragraph from the end) that teachers are not resources "that actually impact student learning." And it appears we are supposed to assume that her organization, Integrity in Education, is one of those that really does "defend society's underdogs", in contrast to Students Matter, which only "pretends" to do so; but when I first met a representative of Students Matter and heard about this case (disclosure: it is one to which I provided some limited assistance), she seemed positively convinced she was doing the same thing, and not merely "pretending". Manichaean dichotomies of this sort do nothing to improve the public discourse related to genuine public concerns, and deserve the opprobrium they garner.

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