Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch made his money creating breakthrough technology in fiber optic communication and building hardware to run the massive interenet networks of the future.
He's spending it - at least some of it - on a pet project that could substantially change teaching in California and the rest of the country.
Welch is the man behind Students Matter, the advocacy group that recruited nine public school students to sue the state of California, saying teacher job protections harm their ability to get the 'adequate' education they are promised in the state constitution.
Despite not having a background in public education, he said he had no choice but to take on the issue.
“About four years ago, I got to the point where there was too many children that were being harmed in the system,” he said. “If I had the capability of doing the right thing to make life better for someone else or for my society, then I try to do it.”
In interviews, Welch wouldn't say how much money the case has cost him. It's no doubt been substantial.
Tax records for 2012 show he loaned Students Matter nearly $1 million that year alone, half of which was spent on public relations. The group paid $1.1 million to lawyers which ultimately filed the suit, called Vergara vs. California.
That was before the suit was filed, before a legal team led by high powered lawyer Ted Boutrous of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher faced off in a Los Angles courtroom for two months this year against a team of lawyers from the state Attorney General’s office and others hired by California teachers unions.
Los Angeles Superior Court judge Rolf Treu said he'll issue a ruling by July. Both sides vow to appeal a decision that isn’t in their favor.
Welch said he firmly believes California schools are failing.
He said the public schools he attended Maryland were full of passionate teachers and paved the road for him to earn a Ph.D. in engineering at Cornell University.
He said he set out to find out why he wasn't seeing that in California classrooms.
“I went around and talked to a large number of individuals and they would range from parents to superintendents to teachers and asked them ‘If you had one magical thing you could do within the system, what would it be?’” he said.
They told him they would change the way teachers are hired, evaluated, and laid off because the current system protects bad teachers, he said.
“When I wake up in the morning, I ask myself, and I guide myself, do the right thing,” Welch said.
Vergara vs. California is Students Matter's first effort. The nonprofit's stated mission is to litigate for better education policies. Welch said he'll support similar lawsuits in other states. He said he's passionate about giving kids the tools they need to succeed academically.
His opponents said he's part of the charter reform movement, which they say seeks to privatize public education.
“People like David Welch, Eli Broad, the Waltons, the Michelle Rhees, have been able to spend a lot of money creating a narrative that sees educators as the problem in public education,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.
Welch said the unions are making him out to be more powerful than he is. And he insists there's nothing wrong with asking courts to decide if public schools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing - or with aligning with like-minded advocates.
“I am interested in having anyone who believes in putting children first in the education system," he said. "If Mr. Broad, or Michelle Rhee are part of that then I welcome their support."