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The Silicon Valley entrepreneur trying to kill teacher tenure just won big

Meet David F. Welch. The Silicon Valley veteran holds about 130 patents in areas like fiber optic networking and semi-conductor laser technology. He made a tidy sum during his stint as chief technology officer for fiber optic company SDL, when JDS Uniphase bought it in 2001 for $41 billion. He then helped found a Sunnyvale, California telecommunications networking firm now known as Infinera more than a decade ago. It now has a market value of more than $1 billion. Oh, and he also started a non-profit organization called Students Matter that is leading an all out assault on teacher tenure at public schools.

Most recently Welch, 53, backed a lawsuit filed by a group of students, who argued that teacher tenure laws violated civil rights and deprived students of educational rights under California’s constitution. Yesterday a California judge ruled in favor of the students, dealing a first-of-its-kind blow to the institution of teacher tenure.

Welch, who holds a Ph.D in electrical engineering from Cornell, may seem like something of an unlikely champion for the anti-tenure campaign, what with being a millionaire tech magnate with little to no educational policy background. Web site Inside Philanthropy says Welch got into the tenure fight as a result of making grants to Silicon Valley public schools and taking up issues at schools his three children attend. Welch explained his involvement to a CBS news affiliate like this:  “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,” he said. “These laws are, I don’t know what else to say, other than they are wrong.” While Welch has his view, the controversial suit is merely the latest turn in a long-standing debate among educational policymakers, teachers and would-be reformers over tenure.

And of course, yesterday’s decision has not settled the matter. California Superior court judge Rolf Treu’s ruling likely will be appealed to California’s state Supreme Court. However some are hoping that the legal wrangling around the issue ends now. “My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift,” said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement yesterday. More likely is a new phase of court battles over tenure. “This is going to be the beginning of a series of these lawsuits that could fix many of the problems in education systems nationwide,” said plaintiffs attorney Theodore Boutrous, one of the prominent lawyers hired by Welch.

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