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.

Dave Welch, right, Students Matter founder, speaks at news conference about the Vergara c. California Decision.  (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)
Dave Welch, right, Students Matter founder, speaks at news conference about the Vergara c. California Decision. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)

Either way, Welch and his education policy nonprofit, Students Matter, celebrated a victory when a Los Angeles judge ruled that California laws governing teacher tenure, firing and layoffs violate students' constitutional right to education equality, and ordered the state to stop enforcing these laws. The ruling, which state teachers' unions quickly denounced and vowed to appeal, decided a lawsuit brought two years ago by the nonprofit that Welch leads and helps fund with his own money. (The judge put the ruling on hold pending outcome of the expected appeal.)

"I've been passionate about education for my whole life, and I've been involved in trying to improve education for my whole life," Welch said in an interview with this newspaper. "The first thing you have to do to deliver education to children in need is offer good, effective, and hopefully highly effective, teachers."

Welch, who co-founded and runs Infinera, a Sunnyvale-based tech firm that makes and sells technology to power fiber-optic Internet services, is the latest wealthy Silicon Valley tech leader to pull from his deep pockets and push an education reform agenda. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife recently gave $120 million to Bay Area schools. And Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder, has put millions into fellowships to encourage students to skip college and pursue their entrepreneurial interests.

The court victory underscores the power that rich and influential business leaders can have on public education policy, particularly if they skirt the often slow-moving and fractured legislative process. Some educators fear that, with the growing concentration of wealth in Silicon Valley, such reform efforts will become more frequent.

"It's discouraging when people who are incredibly wealthy, who can hire America's top corporate law firms, can attempt to drive an education agenda devoid of support from parents and community," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

But for Welch, Tuesday's court ruling overturned teacher policies he genuinely believes harm kids and affirmed the mission he undertook years ago to be an advocate for children when he felt the state, and schools, had failed them.

"The state has a responsibility of delivering an education for the betterment of the child," Welch said. "The state needs to prioritize how to achieve that. If they need to pay more money to obtain and keep good teachers, then that's what they need to do. But the state needs to understand that their responsibility is to teach children, and teach all of them."

A Maryland native, Welch is the product of public education, and went on to attend the University of Delaware and Cornell University. His three children, now college- and high school-aged, went to public and private schools.

Welch is an electrical engineer by training, and one of the top in his field of optical technologies, with more than 130 patents to his name. He's also been an angel investor in Silicon Valley tech companies, and in 2000, he helped facilitate a $41 billion deal between San Jose-based tech firm JDSU and SDL, an optical communications company where Welch was a top executive. But he has made much of his fortune from Infinera, which he co-founded in 2001. According to Bloomberg, his 2013 total compensation was $2.2 million.

Bloomberg data also shows that Welch had 1.1 million shares of Infinera, which at Wednesday's stock market close was worth nearly $10 million.

Infinera, backed by venture capital, didn't make a sale until late 2004. Within two years, Welch said, Infinera dominated the North American market in its industry. Welch took the company public in 2007, and Infinera became one of the hottest IPOs that year when its share prices soared from $13 to nearly $20; the company raised about $200 million in its public debut. Last year, Infinera had $544 million in revenue, up from $405 million in 2011 and $59 million in 2006.

Welch has spent countless hours researching education policies and pouring millions into education causes, including donations to public and private schools in Menlo Park from a grant-making foundation he and his wife, Heidi, set up. His reform efforts kicked into high gear in 2011, when he formed Students Matter to sue the state and kick off a national campaign to reform tenure rules and begin flushing out ineffective teachers.

"I've seen him in his spare time, and I don't know how he has any, because he works so much. He's out there trying to change the world," said Mark Showalter, senior director of marketing at Infinera, where he has worked with Welch for three years. "Someone who could otherwise just be sitting on the sidelines and sending his kids to private school is getting involved and fighting the fight."

Welch's wealth has helped his agenda. In 2012, the David and Heidi Welch Foundation gave $550,000 -- nearly all of the $600,000 in grants given that year -- to Students Matter to fund the organization's activities. Also that year, David Welch loaned $950,000 to Students Matter. The couple lives in Atherton, according to public records, in a house that's assessed at $8.5 million.

And wealth has attracted more wealth -- the Broad Foundation, a controversial education reform organization opposed by most teachers unions, and the Walton Family Foundation, started by Walmart founder Sam Walton, have donated to Students Matter. The nonprofit faced costs including a $1.1 million bill in 2012 from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the high-powered law firm that argued the court case.

"Money had a lot to do with how this case played out," said Frank Wells, spokesman for the California Teachers Association. "The concern is that when someone has a great deal of funding and moves forward with something like this, it's not based on research and evidence. That's why these policy decisions need be made through the Legislature and with debate and discussion."

Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.

dave welch
Age: 53
Education: Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, University of Delaware; Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Cornell University
Family: Wife, Heidi, and three children
Hometown: Grew up in Maryland, now lives in San Mateo County
Work: President and co-founder, Infinera, which makes optical transport technology to sell to fiber-optic communications providers
Interests: Director and CEO, Students Matter, education reform advocacy nonprofit that filed the Vergara v. California lawsuit on behalf of nine students, including three from the Bay Area.
Philanthropy: Director and president, David and Heidi Welch Foundation, a grant-making organization for education, and which helps fund Students Matter.