The potentially game-changing Vergara v. California lawsuit, which attacks key aspects of California law on how teachers are evaluated and fired, opened in Los Angeles last week and has been accompanied by an aggressive public relations campaign unmatched by the opposing side – the State of California and its teachers unions.
The campaign seems designed to make sure that the explosive issues being raised regarding teachers’ job security in California ripple far beyond a cramped courtroom in Los Angeles and help shape public opinion across the state and nation.
Remarkably, this one-sided communications war has been initiated by a single person – Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, the founder of the nonprofit organization Students Matter, which brought the suit – and provides a case study of what impact a single individual can have if he has the resources, or access to them, to take action based on his beliefs.
California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel says his organization, representing more than 300,000 teachers, has no intention of trying to counteract what he described as a campaign funded by the bottomless pockets of the “billionaires boys club.”
“The media blitz is no surprise to us,” he said. “We expected this kind of barrage. We believe that what people want is not flashy PR but real substantive conversations with teachers that they deal with every day. Our focus is not on the media show, but getting out into the community and engaging with parents and community stakeholders. When we tell them the truth they will stand with us.”
However, the sophisticated campaign mounted by the communications firm Griffin|Schein is vastly amplifying the voice of Students Matter, founded in 2010 by Welch, who describes himself as having “30 years of entrepreneurial leadership in fiber optic communications.”
The organization is a relative newcomer to the California education policy landscape. The organization has no staff on its payroll, or even its own office. Instead it is run out of its communications firm’s office in Los Angeles. Its sole purpose, as described on its website, is “sponsoring impact litigation to promote access to quality public education. Welch’s net worth is unknown, although public reports assert that he receives more than $2 million in annual compensation from the Infinera Corporation, which he founded.
For weeks leading to the opening of the trial on Jan. 27, media outlets have received a stream of emails and announcements about the pending proceedings.
An email sent out on the weekend before the trial opened provided possible tweets – complete with scripts, hashtags and Twitter handles – with a half dozen to draw from. Here’s one: Let’s get back to basics, starting with a great teacher in every classroom! I support @Students_Matter #VergaraTrial
Students Matter called a news conference a few days before the trial opened, and on opening day yet another news conference was held during the lunch break with all nine students who are listed in the suit as plaintiffs in the case, along with Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy who has testified on their behalf.
On the morning the trial opened, Students Matter emails sent at 5 a.m. by the communications firms landed in media outlets’ inboxes. Before 8 a.m. that day a news release appeared on Yahoo News with the headline “California Students Get Their Day in Court: Groundbreaking Education Equality Trial Begins Today.”
Within minutes of the trial’s opening at 10 a.m., reporters received an email “live from the courtroom” with a 54-slide PowerPoint outlining the plaintiffs’ case, as well as a “Trial Tracker” that promised daily highlights and quotes, as well as footage from the trial. Before 6 p.m., at the end of the day, another email blast declared that “California Students Get Their Day in Court,” with a detailed description of the day’s proceedings – from the plaintiffs’ perspective – opening with quotes from lead co-counsel Ted Boutros’ opening statements.
Welch has also expressed his views in several op-ed pieces – all part of the media campaign – including one that appeared on the trial’s opening day in the Orange County Register. The communications firm now sends out daily wrap-ups to the news media at the conclusion of each day’s proceedings.
There has been no significant communications counter-attack from the State of California, the defendants in the suit, nor from the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers who would be most directly affected if the plaintiffs were to prevail in the case. The Los Angeles Times has run reports on each day of the trial during its opening week of what is now expected to be a six-week trial. But most media outlets have not cover the trial beyond the first day. So for those in the media and elsewhere interested in getting summaries of the proceedings, their main source of information may well be the daily bulletins put out by the plaintiffs.
“It doesn’t surprise us at all they are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, into these kinds of campaigns,” the CTA’s Vogel said. “They are trying to turn this into a court of public opinion rather than a court of law.”
The Griffin|Schein firm has represented a wide range of clients of differing political persuasions, including the opponents of Proposition 8; Sandy Hook Promise, the organization founded by parents and other survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre; and the Walmart Foundation. The firm is headed by Felix Schein, a former journalist and producer for NBC’s Today show who has an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
In fact, the organization’s “team,” as described on its website, consists of only three players – Welch, the Griffin|Shein communications firm and the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, including the lead co-counsel on the case, Ted Olson. Olson was solicitor general in the administration of President George W. Bush, but most recently confounded perceptions of where he stands politically with his successful challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court of Prop. 8, the initiative banning gay marriage in
Welch founded Students Matter in 2010, apparently with the sole purpose of filing this lawsuit. The organization’s initial name was The Students First Foundation, but then former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee took that name for her Sacramento-based organization, StudentsFirst. So the group is now known as Students Matter.
According to the organization’s tax forms, called Form 990s, in 2011 it paid $515,919 to its original law firm of Quinn Emanuel and another $451,058 to Griffin|Schein through a donation and an interest-free loan.
In 2012, its expenses jumped considerably. Two law firms – Quinn Emanuel along with its current law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher – were paid $1,472,270 and Griffin|Schein, $491,758. Those two payments alone amounted to 97 percent of the organization’s total budget. Figures for 2013 are not yet available, but presumably will be much higher given the preparation for the lawsuit and the escalating public relations campaign being mounted on its behalf last year.
The Form 990s indicate that Welch made nearly $1.5 million in interest free loans to Students Matter in 2011 and 2012, but it is not clear the extent to which other high net worth individuals have also contributed.
A Griffin|Schein staffer provided a list of of the group’s advisory board, which he said is now its legal board as well, but that could not be confirmed with the board itself. The board is headed by Russlynn Ali, the former head of Education Trust-West in Oakland and until last year assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education. She is currently chair of the Emerson Education Fund, part of the Emerson Collective established by Laurene Powell Jobs, who was married to the late Steve Jobs.
Also on the board is Ted Mitchell, the president and CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, who was nominated by President Barack Obama last fall to be undersecretary of education in the U.S. Department of Education.
Another board member is Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, the organization promoting the “parent trigger” laws allowing parents to effect radical changes in their children’s schools, including converting them to charter schools. Maria Casillas, currently the chief of School, Family and Parent/Community Services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, is also on the board, along with Schlein and Arthur Rock, described in a New York Times article as “one of the founding fathers of venture capital.” Rock made it onto the cover of Time as one of the instigators of the Silicon Valley dot.com boom two decades ago.
A spokesperson for Students Matter said that although Welch consulted with her, Rhee has never been on the advisory board, contrary to a 2012 article in the Los Angeles Times.
The CTA’s Vogel said he was not surprised that two members of the board – Ali and Mitchell – were or are about to be high-level figures in the U.S. Department of Education. “We are on a different team,” he said. ”Our major concern is not that they (Students Matter) will win the public over, our concern is all the money and time and energy that is going to this nonsense instead of to what we know is really works in our schools,” he said.”It is a shame that we have to go through this charade rather than stand together and tackle the issues together.”
Welch did not respond to requests for an interview, but on the KQED Radio program on Forum last Friday, Ted Boutros, the plaintiffs’ co-counsel who has been a prominent figure in the lawsuit’s media campaign, said Welch “should be commended” for bringing the suit along with “some of the innovations from Silicon Valley” to the state’s public school system.
“People like David Welch and others who are trying to change the system, and go up against the powerful forces like the unions, are just trying to help students here,” he said “That is what this is about …This is not an attempt to take over the public schools and privatize them.”