Commentary: Standing with Beatriz against Vergara

Steve Zimmer

Steve Zimmer

Just over a year ago, I won re-election to the Los Angeles Unified School District board. It was an unlikely victory in what may have been the most expensive school board race in U. S. history. The wealthiest of self-styled reformers – Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee’s followers – put in over $4-million to try and take over the L.A. Board of Education.

The stakes were high. Los Angeles Unified is by far the largest school district in the nation to be governed by an elected board. Our district has over 900,000 students, over 60,000 employees and an operating budget of over $7 billion. The reformers were clear about their goals. They sought to eviscerate the power of our teacher union by eliminating job protections, seniority rights, and tenure. They sought to link teacher evaluation directly to standardized test scores. And more.

Against this gale force, we were able to build an improbable coalition of families, teachers and classified employees, and community activists. We matched the billionaires’ money with authentic boots on the ground. We talked to people, and people listened. In the many struggles in today’s economy, battles often pit people’s interests against the interests of corporate America. This time the people won.

Or so we thought.

As it turns out, the election isn’t really over. It just shifted venues.

The same privatizers who funded the campaign to buy the school board funded the litigation here in Los Angeles that seeks to achieve through the courts what they could not win at the ballot box. Named for one of the student plaintiffs, Beatriz Vergara, the case heard closing arguments yesterday. If it is successful, the Vergara case will eliminate some teacher tenure protections, limit seniority, and diminish collective bargaining rights.

To be sure, the Vergara case has dramatized serious and significant issues facing our students and their schools. I have spent my career working to narrow the opportunity gap that creates the sub-standard conditions for teaching and learning that so dramatically impact the achievement gap. At both the school where I taught for 17 years and the Board of Education, I have built partnerships that address the education disadvantages that saddle so many black and Latino students struggling against our institutionally racist systems.

But the Vergara plaintiffs’ team was much more interested in the spectacular than the substantive. Their case was presented with compelling optics and atmospherics, and it is part of a strategy that extends well beyond the courtroom. Students Matter, the umbrella organization advancing the case, hired a crackerjack PR team and paid them millions to spread what I call the “Vergara Fiction” across the nation.

The Vergara Fiction is disingenuous. It says that if it were easier to fire teachers and if teachers didn’t have strong tenure and seniority rights, many of the problems facing Beatriz Vergara would disappear. The obstacles built over decades would evaporate with one decision. In this fantasy world of precise causality, if no teachers had tenure, then they would be scared into performing better. If there was no teacher seniority, energetic new teachers would work around the clock for two years before burning out and moving out, being replaced by another young recruit. Make no mistake; the goal of the plaintiffs is to diminish the stature of teaching as a profession.

Addressing instructional quality for all students involves a complex series of changes in policy and practice. Who we recruit to be the next generation of teachers and how they are trained and supported necessitates a transformed relationship between school districts and universities. Improving teacher education is much more important than lengthening the tenure window.

And collaborative teacher evaluation reform like LAUSD’s Frameworks for Teaching and Learning must be implemented with urgency and investment. None of this work is easy. It will take collective sleeve-rolling from our teachers, our union partners and civic Los Angeles. Eliminating seniority would be simpler, but it wouldn’t change a thing for Beatriz Vergara.

Finally, we should all come together to make sure criminals and pedophiles masquerading as teachers never enter a classroom. There are reasonable changes that can be made to statutes that ensure student safety without cutting due process for teachers facing accusations that have nothing to do with student’s rights.

But the plaintiffs’ legal team and their private-sector backers aren’t interested in real solutions. That is not their agenda. The case is just a means to an end. That is why the public relations campaign is so much more about fictional narrative than concrete substance. They have woven together a story that ensures that if they win in court they win, but if they lose they win even more.

Because the next stop for the reform train is back at the ballot box.

The court case is the trailer for the next series of ballot initiatives and school board races. By establishing a fictional direct correlation between Beatriz Vergara’s teachers and every aspect of her aspirations, the plaintiff’s have pitted teacher’s rights against the American Dream itself. And a campaign that is framed as a battle between adult job protections and children’s dreams is a sure fire vote getter. I can see the ad already: “Beatriz Vergara can’t vote yet but you can!”

The damage the Vergara case will inflict will be felt well before the verdict is read or the first post-Vergara campaign is launched. Every teacher that watched the trial or read the coverage felt the attacks personally. The defense team did an admirable job presenting its case, but no one is defending teachers or our life work. The unrefuted narrative of teachers’ standing in the way of the American Dream instead of defending and promoting it, will linger much longer than the verdict.

And there is one more thing.

I know Beatriz Vergara. Not personally. But I know thousands of Beatriz Vergaras. They are my students, my counselees and my neighbors. Rejecting the billionaires and their plaintiffs’ attorneys cannot mean we reject Beatriz and the urgency of her struggle. In fact, we must redouble our efforts to make the complex and difficult changes to our systems that will truly honor her potential and her dreams. We must show Beatriz and her family and all our families that we go so much further when we turn towards each other instead of against each other. We must make her struggle our struggle in our every waking moment. We must forge new pathways to realize the promise of public education for all students. And today, we must have the courage to realize that standing with Beatriz Vergara means standing against the exploitive case that bares her name.

Steve Zimmer is a member of the LA Unified School Board, representing District 4 

  • edadvocate

    Thank you Joe Fogel for your comments. They are right on! “Time for this to change! Our children can’t vote, but need someone to look out for their best interests — and for policies that make sense. The unions and their backers will always advocate for their own best interests. Someone needs to advocate for our kids.”

    Barbara Stam, you are a scary teacher. I’ve followed your comments in LA School report for a while now, and I would cringe if my child was in your class…because we all know that there are no systems in place to monitor what you teach our children in your classroom.

  • Steven Marsden

    More to Steve Zimmer:

    Steve, do you think teachers and parents will support you again in the next election, if you continue to support Deasy, whose reign has been so harmful to children as well as teachers?

    I don’t think so.

  • Steven Marsden

    Tara–is your real name Michelle Rhee? You pretend to care about kids, and that teachers are against kids. Quite the contrary. Most teachers care intensely about the welfare of their students. You and your ilk (including Deasy) do not care about students at all, but only about your money and ego, and try to use students for your own ends, while destroying public education. Disgusting, Michelle.

  • Steven Marsden

    My comment here is not directed to the other commenters, but to Steve Zimmer.

    Beautiful writing, Steve, I agree with most of what you write here.

    What I do not understand, however, is the major contradiction of such words with your support for John Deasy as Superintendent of LAUSD.

    You write about the billionaires who tried to defeat you to take over the schools, and the grassroots campaign of parents and teachers who elected you in spite of that. That is very true. But unfortunately, those billionaires seem to have won LAUSD anyhow, as both you and Bennett Kayser voted as they wished, to keep the evil Mr. Deasy in power. (The doctorate is fake, you know, bought with taxypayer money. The recipient is in federal prison.)

    Mr. Deasy is the embodiment of all that you write against. For instance, he was the star witness of the plaintiffs in the Vergara case. Was that testimony on school district time, paid by LA taxpayers? If so, is that legal and proper?

    Deasy was clearly put in office by the billionaires you write against, and is doing their bidding. He is likely getting a big payoff from Apple and Pearson in the Ipad deal.

    Will the real Steve Zimmer please stand up?

  • Tara Kelly

    CA has more than 300,000 teachers yet in the last decade,only 19 (?!) have been dismissed for poor performance. RealClearEd this week (edited for space limits here):

    “97 years ago the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned. That tragedy killed 146 workers, mostly young women, and highlighted all manners of industrial and safety shortcomings. The exits from the factory were locked. . . . 350,000 attended public funerals for the workers. The outcry . . . ultimately led to greater safety and rights for factory workers nationwide.

    Unlike Triangle though, the alignment [in Vergara] is not ruthless management against powerless workers — instead it’s weak management against powerful workers. And many generally pro-labor Democrats are working with the plaintiffs. They don’t see dismissal policies that have resulted in only 19 dismissals in all of California for low-performance over the past decade as a cornerstone of workers’ rights. Rather they see those policies . . . and a tenure period that even defense witnesses acknowledged is inadequate, as as adults-first obstacles to helping low-income children get a better education.

    [I]t seems an awful long way from Triangle to Vergara.”

    • Barbara Stam

      Tara, Like many “reformers” you seem obsessed with firing teachers, yet where is your plan for keeping teachers in the field? Your obsession with “firing” teachers masks the fact that 50% self-select out of the profession in urban areas, usually due to working conditions.
      In other words, they leave the “cadillac” benefits, pension and “three months off a year” of their own volition. The question is why?

      Your anger would be better focused on answering that question, however I can help you out with a little story from my years at Fremont High.
      A 4 -year female English teacher had been forced to travel from classroom to classroom for an entire year which by the way is in violation of the union contract. They had also given her five preps. If you have any idea what that means, you know her life was hell. She was an excellent teacher. They tried to do it again to her the next year but other teachers intervened with the administration and got made sure she had a classroom.
      But it was too late. Her husband had a good job and told her to quit, that he would support her. So Fremont lost a great teacher and 200 students got a sub. This was a typical situation at Fremont.

    • Barbara Stam

      ara, Like many “reformers” you seem obsessed with firing teachers, yet where is your plan for keeping teachers in the field? Your obsession with “firing” teachers masks the fact that 50% self-select out of the profession in urban areas, usually due to working conditions.
      In other words, they leave the “cadillac” benefits, pension and “three months off a year” of their own volition. The question is why?

      Your anger would be better focused on answering that question, however I can help you out with a little story from my years at Fremont High.
      A 4 -year female English teacher had been forced to travel from classroom to classroom for an entire year which by the way is in violation of the union contract. They had also given her five preps which was overwhelming
      . She was an excellent teacher. The administration tried to do it again to her the next year but other teachers intervened with the administration and made sure she had a classroom.
      But it was too late. Her husband who had a good job told her to quit, that he would support her and that’s just what she did. So Fremont lost a great teacher and 200 students got a sub. This was a typical situation at Fremont.

    • Barbara Stam

      Excellent article on Bill Moyers website. The real 21st century problem in education is poverty, not teachers.

  • David Betz

    “How do I know your kids are snotty, entitled little brats who talk back to their teachers? ”

    You probably meant “aren’t”?

    I hope you are not a public school teacher. I would never talk about children that way, or my adult clients, either, for that matter.

    The basic problem is this: How do we measure a teacher’s effectiveness?

    First, we must agree on a definition of effectiveness. Whatever our definition, it must be easily measurable. It should measure student’s learning, because that’s why children attend school – to learn.

    The measure of teacher effectiveness most people have settled on is students’ performance on standardized tests. This can be easily measured, and it reflects student learning.

    You may not like Value Added scoring of teacher’s performance, but it is so far the only measure of teacher performance which has been shown to have lasting positive effects on student’s lives. Not peer evaluations, not advanced certificates in teaching, not length of teaching career beyond the first 3-4 years. Only VAM has been shown to indicate which teachers make a difference.

    But don’t take my word for it, visit Raj Chetty’s website His work is impressive.

    • Raj Acharya

      I never understood why “wealthiest of self-styled reformers – Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee” are always wrong. Is it because they are wealthy or because they are self styled?

  • Nathaniel West

    All the money and corporate effort poured into Vergara to make sure kids have a “good education” vis a vis their teacher disguises the culpability of Vergara’s funders, As a National Board Teacher,I have NEVER in my life been so insulted by my District’s leaders and held in such contempt as I have by John Deasy,Bill Gates and Eli Broad.

    LAUSD, under Deasy, is a grim place for teachers.Many of my National Board colleagues despise the pedagogy he espouses. Whatever “wrongs” the Vegara supporters direct at individual teachers (and really ALL teachers), it truly is a joke in the Greater Picture.

    The education lines are clearly drawn with Deasy, Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and their 1% Neo-liberal ilk who have joined with the most loathsome GOP Governors and legislatures to turn public education into a two-tier system of the Haves and Have Nots. IPad Civil Rights disguised as Equity.

    Spare me Deasy’s “I-love-teacher” lip service.Privilege, arrogance and obsequiousness have been the hallmarks of his personal life and career. His starring testimony in Vegara is just one more capstone in a career that targets teachers and ignores all realities of kids’ greater societal plight

  • Lisa Rivera

    Pleeeez. Steve Zimmer finds it so easy to lecture on and on but when it comes to action, where is he? He stands with everybody else instead of with all of us who got him elected. we believed he would take ACTION and not just words.

  • David Betz

    I am a parent with 3 children in California public schools. I have been following the education reform process for several years now.

    My own children have suffered through 3 bad teachers. None of these 3 teachers was terrible, they simply were below average. One seemed way over her head teaching 4th grade. Another simply lacked enthusiasm or energy. Another lacked classroom control, and also seemed a bit over her head.

    I am a well-paid professional in a service industry. Although I am upper middle class, most of the people in the city I live in make more money than I, or at least live in much more expensive houses (I live in a condo).

    I encounter a broad variety of people in my job. Each of my clients receives a follow-up survey asking if I was friendly, if my explanations to them were good, and what their overall rating of me is. I am rewarded or penalized according the their responses.

    I don’t understand why teachers feel that they should not be similarly rewarded/penalized.

    Most of us in the real world do not have tenure. Most of us are not rewarded based on meaningless measures. Many of us are at-will employees. Why should teachers be any different?

    • Susan Graham

      How do you know these teachers were “bad?” You use vague generalities like “lacked enthusiasm.” What do you do mean by that? Did your children not learn from these teachers? Your post is the exact reason we need protections because the general public may not actually be able to judge a good from a “bad” teacher.

      Enthusiasm does not equal good teaching. I’ve seen it time and time again. I have seen “enthusiastic” teachers who are easy graders and don’t use rubrics or actually spend much time evaluating student work.

      So again, how do you know they were “bad” teachers? You are an at will employee because you and other private sector workers have not agitated for your rights or supported unions. That is why the average person (the bottom 80%) is in the position they are in- massive economic insecurity and lost of job security is not good for the country. It may be good for the “upper middle class” but not for the rest of us who don’t have the connections you have.

      • David Betz

        “How do you know these teachers were ‘bad?'”

        Aye, there’s the rub. How can I know which teachers are good and bad?

        The most direct measures, Value Added Methods, have been staunchly opposed by teacher’s unions, and have not yet come to California, except through the noble efforts of newspapers like the LA Times.

        Another method of evaluating teachers is to send out parent and student surveys. Student surveys sent out to students in the 4th grade or higher can be fairly accurate in evaluating teacher effectiveness. Of course, no school system my children have attended has surveyed either parents or students.

        I surmised these teachers were bad because: my children thought they were bad teachers, and my wife and I independently concluded they were bad teachers. Unfortunately, because of the efforts of the CTA, we have few other accurate methods of evaluating teacher effectiveness. Certainly, traditional methods have been shown to be poor estimators of teacher effectiveness.

        Finally, my profession is not unionized because the federal government forbids us from unionizing, calling it anti-competitive, even though more than half of my pay comes from the federal government.

        • Susan Graham

          And yet, you fail to answer my direct question: How do you know if a teacher is “good” or “bad.” VAM is a sham. It has been proven NOT to be accurate by many studies.
          The state standards in the English and Social Science areas are far too numerous to teach well, especially to students who are English Language Learners and are absent frequently.

          Interestingly, private schools don’t try to shove 12 standards a year down their student’s throats. They teach one standard a quarter or four a year and don’t standardize test their students. But then I also refuse to do the ridiculous “power standard” strategy. I refuse to be controlled by VAM. I teach about 1 1/2 standards a quarter and teach deeply. I could care less what my VAM score is because it has no relationship to my teaching quality or more importantly what my students learn.

          I would ask you again, how do you know these were “bad” teachers? How do I know your kids are snotty, entitled little brats who talk back to their teachers?

          Because I’ve had students in South LA call me and my colleagues names and curse us out. Funny, somehow that could make a teacher less “enthusiastic.” Just a little.

          • Susan Graham

            You haven’t given any criteria for why your fourth grader could tell whether a teacher was “good” or “bad.” I can tell you when I was in the fourth grade, I couldn’t tell.

            I did know years later when I connected dots who I learned better from. On the other hand, perhaps other students didn’t learn as well from the teachers I did. I had a teacher who had us write poetry every month from a different genre and we made a book out of all the class poems. I still have it to this day. She also taught guitar after school. I thought she was tremendous but maybe someone else might not.

            Did your children learn from these teachers regardless of VAM? Were they struggling the next year or did they seem to keep up just fine? If it was the latter, your kids’ teachers were probably fine and they just didn’t care for the teaching style of the teacher.

            I would also point out that removing teacher protections removes it from the “good” teachers to and if you think principals can tell who “good” teachers are I have a working levee in New Orleans to sell you. Often they cant.

      • Raj Acharya

        All that is required to be a good teacher is that he/she has tenure and union dues are paid up. Teachers do not want to be evaluated at any cost, therefore we should no longer evaluate students to make the playing field even.

        If the students are not evaluated then the parents can no longer have any opinion on the teacher quality. Therefore there will be no bad teachers. This is a win for the teacher union and they can continue to spread blatant lies about evaluation. Where in the world one is not evaluated other than the teachers?

  • Nathaniel West


    Did Steve Zimmer’s Popeye eat a can of spinach?

    Love a lot of the righteous sentiment Zimmer expresses here. For the record, the same “philanthropists” who have funded the Vergara case poured their fortunes into the school board races to back Pro-Deasy candidates. They’re the same who prescribe a vastly different education for MY students than they give THEIR kids.

    Deasy has been backed by Gates and Broad his entire hopscotch career. He was the first witness in Vergara. Deasy and these obscenely rich people say it is a crime to have a bad teacher but are absolutely silent on overcrowded classrooms, lack of electives, barren field trip opportunities, dreary scripted lesson plans and the emphasis on test scores to prove “education”. THESE are not a Civil Rights issues to them. But if it has to do with their personal profits, they become Rosa Parks.

    Steve Zimmer: Who were the forces that came out to support Deasy when he “threatened” to quit? Who secretly bankrolls so much of Beaudry and will we ever know how much $ they “give” and where is it spent? The quid pro quos? You yourself gave Deasy (and his “friends) your support and thought he best for LAUSD.

    We live with it.

    • Barbara Stam

      Nathaniel, you hit the nail on the head, especially the part about our students being prescribed a vastly different education than those the reformers kids’ get.

      I was stunned when I was sent a draft of new Common Core curriculum for the Cold War from a state agency that usually produces fairly interesting materials.

      They had managed to make Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution boring and never even mentioned three major revolutionary players- Vaclav Havel, Jan Palach and Marta Kubisova. You can’t even teach the topic without mentioning at least Havel and Palach. In other words, they had removed anything remotely controversial or “Occupy” like lest our students get any ideas.

      In the section on Vietnam, there was no mention of minority soldiers, Ali’s draft resistance, or a critique of the “body count” obsession that cost so many Vietnamese civilians and US troops their lives. In other words, it is sanitized curriculum.

      Common Core purports to promote “critical thinking” while failing to provide students with the range of differing points of view needed to actually critically think.

      “Smarter and balanced?” More like corporate and whitewashed.

  • martha infante

    It is good to know that Steve Zimmer, years removed from the classroom, still understands what a teacher feels and knows. Thank you for speaking on our behalf, and for communicating what everyone should already know: it takes a village to raise a child, and no one is falling for the tricks by the Kochs and the Broads any longer. We work together or we collapse together.

    Martha Infante
    NBC Teacher, Los Angeles

  • Joe Fogel

    Mr. Zimmer, you helped our school “skip” the RIF notice received by a fabulous young teacher who differentiates instruction and nurtures kids. Thanks to your intervention, we were able to keep her. You helped the school across the street do the same. Great outcome for us, but your actions show that Last In, First Out is a stupid policy. Fantastic teachers belong in front of our kids, teaching. The teacher in the Vergara case who assigned “coloring time” to her eighth grade class does not. I live in a zip code where we have access to people in power and aren’t afraid to use our social capital to kick up a fuss and keep a great teacher. The parents at Markham Middle School have no such luck. At the height of the recession/budget armaggedon, 60% of the teachers at Markham were laid off. According to testimony in the Reed case, the majority of these young, forced-out teachers would have willingly remained. When the “must place” teachers arrived to replace them, 75% of these senior teachers quit within the first 3 days! They didn’t want to work there. The students at Markham made do with substitutes for the remainder of the year.

    This is unequal, and it is an outrage. Yesterday I was in court to stand with Beatriz Vergara and the other plaintiffs. I am a public school parent who is convinced that these policies drag down our schools. No one is paying me for my views. My kids are in a traditional public school and I am neither “corporate America” nor a “privatizer.” The case is not about doing away with tenure. It simply recognizes that California, which has been bought by CFT, has more teacher protections than most all other states — and that teachers have twice as many protections as other unionized employees such as firemen, policemen, and government workers. The case doesn’t want to dismantle unions, just roll back some of these excessive protections for teachers. My own child narrowly missed being assigned to an awful teacher, because our principal broke the rules and allowed a phenomenal teacher with less seniority to be assigned to her classroom instead –so I, too, have followed this case, and feel a personal stake in it.

    The unions bankrolled your campaign, and your dollars were evenly matched by funds raised by your opponent — financially, it was an equal campaign. But as a union-backed candidate, the union whistled and its membership phone-banked and knocked on doors for you. Your opponent was a parent, and there is no parent union with organized boots on the ground. There is only one parent currently serving on the school board with children currently enrolled in the LAUSD: Tamar Galatzan. Time for this to change! Our children can’t vote, but need someone to look out for their best interests — and for policies that make sense. The unions and their backers will always advocate for their own best interests. Someone needs to advocate for our kids.

    • Michael Dominguez

      Fogel you are a plant and you and Mr. Zimmer are working both sides of the street. LIFO is the only fair way to protect workers. There is no way that you can spin it to make it fit your argument. Workers on the job for a longer period of time make more money than younger workers. Your appeals to “phenomenal” are unsupported by anything other than hallucination and a limited picture of what really goes on in a school run by a despot as are all LAUSD schools.
      The argument that UTLA is powerful and protects “bad” teachers comes straight out of the Nazi propaganda playbook. Mr. Zimmer took UTLA support and promised that he would be our advocate but instead he rubber stamps all teacher jail dismissals. In your mind “bad” teacher equals older teacher and Mr. Zimmer is dismissing as many of us as possible so soon only “phenomenal” young, pretty, cheaper teachers will staff LAUSD schools. His goal is to “diminish the stature of the teaching profession,” though he’ll claim otherwise. Dismissing teachers based upon unsubstantiated accusations is the surest way to do this. Mr. “Fogel” (Joe Bird), Zimmer is the best ally you and the privateers have in your war against teachers.

    • Barbara Stam

      “Fabulous YOUNG teacher.” Wow, the abject discrimination in your comment is stunning. What other profession other than stripper could someone be vilified for their age and never be called on it? Oh yes, teaching!
      I can tell you from my own school experience it was the veterans who tended to be the highest quality teachers because TIME is an integral factor in becoming a quality teacher, not age.

      Mr. Fogel, I recommend a book for you to read that I use with my history students when teaching the Cold War. The title is A Children’s Story- But Not Just for Children by James Clavell. It is a slim book he wrote at the height of the Cold War the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      The fictional plot centers around the USA losing a war to the Soviet Union. In order to brainwash school kids, the Soviets use 19 year old “teachers” to further their ideology which works brilliantly on the kids. The “old” teacher in the classroom who is introduced at the beginning of the story is taken away, never to be seen again, kind of like what is happening in LAUSD right now.