Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, A Billionaire And A USDOE Assistant Secretary Walk Into A Courtroom...

Much of the press surrounding the Vergara decision has focused on the role of David Welch, President of the Silicone Valley Telecommunications behemoth, Infinera.
Dave Welch isn't a teacher, politician or lawyer, but he was the driving force behind a landmark court ruling Tuesday that is poised to overhaul public education in California and across the nation.
How did the 53-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur do it? Some would say it's a passion for kids' education and a winning argument that California's policies guiding teacher tenure are broken. Others would say, simply, it's his money.
Welch certainly seems to be the driving force behind the Vergara case, but he had a lot of help along the way from some very reformy friends in very high places.

I've taken some time to familiarize myself with the 990s for the Students First Foundation, which is "doing business as" Students Matter. Students First Foundation is the 501c3 Welch formed to trample teacher tenure. 

It's amazing what you can learn from a 990.

The most recent one is from 2012. It reveals not only where the $2 million they had at their disposal that year came from, but how it was spent, and the rationale for the expenditures. (Between 2010 and 2012, Students Matter has spent well over $3 million - imagine how much more has been spent in 2013 and 2014...) 

For instance, here's the narrative for the almost $1.5 million they spent on litigation in 2012...

... and the half million on public relations...

... and the paltry $40,000 reaching out to the community they were supposedly representing.

Students Matter found the attorneys and the expert witnesses for the case; they compiled the "studies" and established the strategy; they even assembled the ed reform groups and philanthropists to support the case. Oh and they dabbled in "community outreach" but it seems the "public" part of their relations campaign wasn't much of a priority.

The breakdown in expenditures seems to lead to one simple conclusion - if you have almost $2M to spend on lawyers and PR, it doesn't really matter whether you have buy in from the community.

And they didn't. 

Consider this, from Esau Herrera, veteran Board member from Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, which was a co-defendant in the Vergara case.
“If you walk around the community here and mention David Welch’s name, everybody will draw a blank,” he says. “One question is, Why is David Welch spending so much money? . . . But then you wonder why someone like this [is] involved in issues that affect a community, according to him and others, that he has no part in. That he has no acquaintance with. That perhaps other than the fact that people who look like us cut his lawn, you know, there’s no connection.”
But again, when you have all that money, who needs community support?

The 990's also reveal that the money behind the suit wasn't Welch's alone. The two largest contributions did indeed come from Welch; $550,000 from "The Welch Trust" and $568,357 from "LRFA, LLC" which is some sort of business entity that links directly back to Welch's Infinera.

So that's well over $1M from Welch.

The next biggest dollar amount came from none other than Eli Broad, who kicked in $200,000 to buy the Vergara ruling. Just last month Bruce Reed, who is tasked with "minding the foundation's investments and its work on K-12 reform," discussed the Vergara case with the LA Times. His remarks are so simplistic, so misguided, it's almost beyond comprehension.
Q: There should be a ruling soon in the Vergara lawsuit, brought by L.A. are students challenging teacher tenure, seniority and firing policies. The foundation supports the student's case. In some quarters it's seen as being about busting teachers unions, not about improving education.
A: The goal of Vergara and efforts like it is to make sure there are quality teachers in the classroom. We do a very poor job in this country in teacher preparation. Most of the education schools aren't any good. We throw first year teachers into the classroom. No one comes along to see how they're doing, give them advice. No good workplace works that way. We should pay teachers more for doing well, for teaching in the toughest places to teach, for excelling at one of the toughest professions. We need to elevate the profession.
If your head has stopped spinning, we'll move on to the other big money backers behind Vergara.

The next biggest dollar amount, $100,000, came from  "Tammy and Bill Crown." It took some digging around to figure out that William H. Crown, who seems to split his time between Chicago and Portola Valley, CA, is one of the heirs to Chicago billionaire Lester Crown's fortune
Lester Crown, 80, chairman of Henry Crown & Co., the privately held company that is the vehicle for much of the family's investments
William H. Crown, 41, general partner in Henry Crown & Co.; president and CEO of another family-run investment company, CC Industries Inc. (son)
Bucks: Regulars on Forbes' billionaires list, Lester Crown and clan ranked 52nd this year with an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
The bulk of the family's holdings are in manufacturing and real estate. Some gems include Aspen Skiing Co. resort in Colorado and stakes in the Chicago Bulls, the New York Yankees and New York's Rockefeller Center.
Because what ed reform escapade would be complete without at least a couple of billionaires? Certainly the Crowns of Chicago should have a say in what happens in the classrooms of California's students, shouldn't they?

The next two largest contributions come directly from folks on the Students Matter Advisory Board. 

Ted Schlein kicked in $50,000. Klein not only sits on the Advisory Board, he is listed as the Director and CFO on the Students Matter 990. Schlein made Forbes' 2014 "Midas List" as one of the Top 100 Venture Capitalists, coming in at #62. Schlein has spent his career in and around the Silicon Valley Tech Industry, so naturally, he should determine which teachers should remain in California's classrooms, right?

A $30,000 donation from the Emerson Education Fund may be one of the most interesting, however. The Managing Director of the Emerson Education Fund is Russlynn Ali, who also just happens to be on the Students Matter Advisory Board. 

Guess where Ali was BEFORE she came to Emerson.
Duncan and Ali appear at Howard University - in this CNN photo
Russlynn joined Emerson Collective from the U.S. Department of Education, where she served as assistant secretary for civil rights. Nominated by President Obama in early 2009, Russlynn was confirmed by the Senate on May 1, 2009, and served in that position until December 2012. As assistant secretary, she acted as Secretary Duncan’s primary advisory on equity and civil rights, and led a team of more than 600 attorneys, investigators and staff that is widely credited with having revitalized civil rights enforcement in education.
Prior to becoming assistant secretary, Russlynn served as vice president of the Education Trust in Washington, DC, and as the founding executive director of Education Trust – West in Oakland, California. She has also worked as a teacher, attorney, liaison for the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, assistant director of policy and research at the Broad Foundation, and chief of staff to the president of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education. (emphasis mine)
It's not hard to imagine that Ali very well may have been one of the driving forces behind Vergara. She would certainly have all the needed experience - knowledge of the "studies" that support Vergara's POV, access to the philanthropists to lend financial and moral support and it sure never hurts to have the Secretary of Education on your side.

Ali's Broad/Duncan leanings are on full display in an article she wrote about the trial, in which she makes some of the most outlandish statements about teacher effectiveness I've ever seen strung together in a single sentence.
Students taught by effective teachers are more likely to attend college, have higher earnings trajectories, live in better neighborhoods, save more for retirement, and avoid pregnancy during teenage years.
I don't know about you, but I'd love to see the research that backs up each and every one of those statements. 

Especially since one of the key points on which Judge Treu decided the case was that "grossly ineffective" teachers make up 1-3% of the California teaching force (somewhere between 2,750-8,250 teachers apparently) who are having a "direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students."

Except the expert witness who gave this testimony says that's not what he meant at all.
But where did this number come from?
Nowhere, it turns out. It’s made up. Or a “guesstimate,” as David Berliner, the expert witness Treu quoted, explained to me when I called him on Wednesday. It’s not based on any specific data, or any rigorous research about California schools in particular. “I pulled that out of the air,” says Berliner, an emeritus professor of education at Arizona State University. “There’s no data on that. That’s just a ballpark estimate, based on my visiting lots and lots of classrooms.” He also never used the words “grossly ineffective.”
Oh dear. 

The above linked article for Salon by Jordan Weissman makes the most salient points I've seen in the wake of the decision, primarily that the decision seems to have been made on the judge's misinterpretation of the testimony given. 

Here's another excerpt from Weissman's article.
Berliner seems to have let something important get lost in translation on the stand. Because, as he said to me, he doesn’t necessarily believe that low test scores qualify somebody as a bad teacher. They might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show up on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math. And while he has observed teachers he didn’t particularly like, or thought could use more training, he’s never encountered one he would consider “grossly ineffective.”
“In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher,” he told me. “I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.” 
Just to make sure this is crystal clear - the expert witness in the Vergara case states he has no idea what a "grossly ineffective" teacher is, has never met one, and doesn't think test scores should label a teacher as ineffective. Yet somehow Judge Treu let a distorted version of his testimony impact his decision.

That's just peachy.

This case was clearly not decided based on "facts" or "research, rather the decision seemed to be predestined -- the result of a well orchestrated public relations campaign. In fact, from 2011-2012 Students Matter paid PR firm Griffin Schein (AKA Rally) just under $1M for their services.  
Griffin Schein Communications, which has specialized in issue advocacy for entertainment figures and public interest clients, has renamed itself Rally.
The firm led communications efforts with the American Foundation for Equal Rights in the nonprofit’s quest to overturn Proposition 8 in federal courts and has worked on advocacy efforts involving Maria Shriver, Alicia Keys, Rob Reiner and Norman Lear. It has been working with Students Matter in its Vergara vs. California lawsuit, which seeks to strike teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws in the state.
Dismantling tenure is not the same as overturning Prop 8. 

It just isn't. 

And Rally played no small role in this case and its ultimate outcome. 

I don't doubt the PR folks working on this campaign were themselves sold by the likes of Russlyn Ali and fellow Students Matter Advisory Board Member Ben Austin, Founder of Parent Revolution, that education reform is "the civil rights issue of our time.

But the ideology behind campaigns like Parent Revolution and Students Matter often falls flat in real world applications. The parent trigger legislation pushed by Parent Revolution has stalled in more states than it has been enacted, and California is the only state where the trigger has been pulled, and it wasn't pretty. Some parents involved in the original campaign now feel cheated and burned.
Morales said he is pleased with the new charter operator in Adelanto, but said he wouldn’t go through the trigger process if he had the option of doing it all over again. He’s cut ties with parents he once considered good friends because of it.
They brainwashed a lot of us into believing that we needed them and the parent trigger to successfully transform the school,” he said. (emphasis mine)
That's really quite a statement - that one of the parents at the center of the only successful application of the parent trigger feels like Parent Revolution came in and brainwashed the community, and if given the chance he wouldn't do it again. 

I can't help but draw a parallel between Parent Revolution and parent trigger legislation and Students Matter and the Vergara decision. 

Ultimately, the question is, will the upheaval and tumult caused by ferreting out all the "grossly ineffective" teachers in California produce a drastically different education system, or in a few years will the families at the center of this campaign feel like they were brainwashed and that their schools could have been improved without all the drama?

It's my greatest hope the Vergara decision does not spread to other states, and is overturned in California on appeal due to pressure from the actual parents, teachers and students who would be affected but this reckless ruling. I don't know about you, but personally I'm pretty sick and tired of monied interests buying legislation, and now a court decision, that could potentially impact my (and your) kids and their teachers.


  1. Beautifully researched and written!

    1. You comment means the world to me, Mama! Thank you!!

  2. Great post. Re: Russlyn Ali, reasons for leaving the DOE are interesting.

  3. It would be really interesting to know if Judge Treu has or had any relationship with any of the players in this. His position is really ill informed, especially in the basics of what tenure actually is. BTW, I'm of the firm belief that the word "tenure" needs to stop being used when applied to K-12 teachers. It just conjures, thanks lots of PR, the notion of employment for life when it is nothing of the sort.

    1. I'd think he'd have to recuse himself if he did.

      I agree about the misconceptions about tenure. I think this is a pretty good post that's easily digestible.

  4. Great work, Daci. And so important. Thank you

  5. Thank you, Russ! And you're welcome!! :)

  6. Just to clarify this lawsuit is not an action taken by Community Education Council 31

    I am Co-Chair of the CEC 31 Safety & Transportation Committee and co-author of the Comprehensive Safety Plan, which includes response measures, system upgrades, training and school resource officers. The NYS Legislature & Governor Cuomo agreed with this plan and included it in the Budget and NYS Safe Act.

    Mike Reilly

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thank you so much for your comment. Your opinion piece is amazing, and I will be sure to share it.

      As for the issues surrounding the Comprehensive Safety Plan you co-authored, I can't agree with any plan that includes arming school personnel. I will be the first to admit, I have not researched options for school safety, but as a parent I would not want armed personnel in my daughters' school.

      Again, thank you very much for stopping by my blog and commenting.

      AKA Mother Crusader