In Partnership with The 74

For his next term, Zimmer wants to focus on school equity, charter cooperation, and attracting quality teachers

Mike Szymanski | April 12, 2017



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(Courtesy photos)

School board President Steve Zimmer said he has a lot of work left to do and plans to try to do it all in his next five-and-a-half-year term if reelected. It will be his last hurrah because Zimmer will be termed out and won’t be able to run for the board again.

Zimmer said he has an ambitious wish list, but a few key items remain as top priorities in his vision of the next five years. Some of them have been on his list since he first joined the board in 2009.

But some major obstacles now have been erased, such as a flurry of superintendents at the district — one Zimmer had major disagreements with (John Deasy). Zimmer considers the board’s unanimous appointment of Michelle King in the superintendent spot as one his top accomplishments. “I believe Michelle King is setting us in the right direction,” he said.

Many of his priorities are inextricably related to each other and have to be tackled simultaneously, he acknowledged. They include such weighty issues as school equity, charter cooperation, addressing Prop. 39 concerns, fiscal stability, early education, wrap-around services, immigrant protections, dual-language programs, and student integration.

“If I get elected on May 16, school integration will be one of my priorities these next few years,” said Zimmer, talking about his goal of ending race-based segregation at the district once and for all.

“I can identify 40 to 45 schools in this district today that should be getting school integration funds, and if we used school integration funds differently it will be a big step in the right direction. Really supporting school integration will be a major, major issue for me while simultaneously continuing this equity mission for schools where students are living in the conditions of the most serious poverty and most extreme economic and racial segregation.”

Zimmer said he is proud of resolutions he has written and co-sponsored that help poor communities, LGBT youth, undocumented families, and others who don’t have equity in the school system. He has pointed out problems created by antiquated procedures the district faces, like some schools losing teachers and counselors because their schools are too white.

“The challenge is to simultaneously support school integration and invest in it while also having a commitment to equity as the primary driver,” Zimmer explained. “Equity has to be a primary driver for a district that has the history we have.”

Among his biggest challenges is figuring out how to handle the proliferation of charter schools in the district and keeping services equitable. Although he has said he is not against charter schools and has voted to approve more charter schools in the district than deny them, he rankled some charter supporters early on in 2012 when he called for a charter moratorium that was rejected by fellow board members.

ZimmerCampaignBut he said he sees an opportunity to work with charter schools and be a model for the nation, which is why his school board race is being watched across the country. Zimmer said he could see LA Unified as a leader in charter school growth and management since the district is already the largest charter authorizer in the country.

Zimmer said he hopes to figure out compromises with charter school advocates to find them proper spaces as required by law, without hurting existing traditional schools. “There was a turn in charter leadership somewhere in the early 2000’s where people got in their minds that they can bring this district down and that there was nothing good in the district. They so dehumanized us.”

One of the issues he said requires fixing is Prop. 39, a state law that allows charter schools to co-locate on district school campuses and mandates sharing of space. Now he not only is getting criticized for being too lenient in allowing charter schools to use classrooms at crowded schools, but he is being blamed by some charter schools for not allowing schools to co-locate on some campuses.

Truth is, Zimmer doesn’t have the authority to say where the schools are co-located, and those decisions are made by the superintendent. Yet he gets the criticism.

“I’m criticized for situations that are most impossible, but that’s OK because it shines a light on what needs fixing,” Zimmer said. “We need to simultaneously lead the nation in an equity mission and figure out how to lead the nation in school integration.”

Zimmer added, “We need to simultaneously strengthen neighborhood public schools and if I’m re-elected we are going to get to a compromised facilities solution for existing charter schools and we are going to find a way — a reasonable way — to give back to charter growth that is based on true innovation, and true incubation for needed change, not merely based on land and power.”

He said Prop. 39 needs to be figured out more fairly, and he wanted to make sure that the decisions are equitable for all schools, charter or not.

Zimmer said the Prop. 39 law is “a broken law” and said he plans to work with charter groups to make the shared spaces equitable. “You can wage war under a law that is broken or you can try to really reach out and mitigate a broken law, or you can honestly say, ‘This law is broken and we don’t want to operate under this law either.’ Individual charter operators and charter educators off the record will tell you that they are interested in working it out.”

The California Charter Schools Association challenged LA Unified in court twice to make sure that the distribution of classrooms to charter schools was equitable. But Zimmer said a compromise with the charter schools must be worked out so it doesn’t affect traditional schools.

Another step toward equity is Zimmer’s plan to increase arts after many programs were stopped at the district during budget cuts.

“We are also going to figure out a way to make sure that equitable arts education is a right for every student, not a privilege for the affluent and the lucky,” he said. He said that since he has been in office, funding for school arts programs has increased by $18 million and sent to areas that need it the most. “And we’re going to make sure that we continue on this march toward graduation.”

Another major priority, Zimmer noted, is to increase the number of quality teachers in the district. He repeatedly spoke to the school board about his concern about a teacher and counselor shortage and said, “I hope to usher in a new generation of public educators and make this system the best place to be a teacher in the country.”

Zimmer disagreed with his fellow board members over graduating students who get D grades, and he remains skeptical about online credit recovery programs, but he said he hopes to make changes in the system in his next term.

Zimmer is less concerned than his competitor, Nick Melvoin, over the fiscal stability of the school district and said he thought the superintendent is beginning to make necessary adjustments to the district’s budget.

“The district is doing the right things in terms of student achievement and in terms of fiscal stability,” said Zimmer, pointing to decreases in suspension rates due restorative justice programs. “The district also leads the state and the nation around school discipline reform and restorative practices, social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practice, all of that. We’re leading the nation in resisting the federal pressures.”

Zimmer said he makes trips to Washington D.C., and Sacramento to lobby for federal and state funding that LA Unified deserves. He said the special education funding promised to the district is less than the services they provide.

He said the threat to the school district by the Trump administration is very real, and he was proud to co-author the resolution declaring the district a “safe zone.”

“I will not allow anyone to underestimate the venom that Donald Trump has for Los Angeles Unified School District, nor will I allow anyone to underestimate their utter and complete lack of understanding about public schools and their financing and their purpose that exists now in this administration. You have heads in this administration across the board who never attended a public school, never sent their kid to a public school.”

Zimmer said he advocated to bring $300 million to LA Unified through the Education Jobs bill and helped increase funding through Prop. 30 and Prop. 55.

Zimmer added, “This is a diabolical shift that has risks that are almost unprecedented. So yes, I have to go and make sure the voices of teachers and children and families of this district are very much in the mix in Sacramento and Washington.”

As far as his campaign goes, Zimmer said his supporters are fighting for every dollar they are raising and that his volunteers are knocking on doors and making phone calls in his large District 4, which stretches from the west side to Hollywood. He said all his money goes directly to flyers that get his message out, and he condemns negative advertising.

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For example, he is against opponents previously calling the district a “failing district” and said the characterization is wrong. He said that ignores the successes going on with social justice programs, increased graduation rates, and other district improvements.

“There was a lot of systemic racism and inequity and tolerance of outcomes in areas of poverty that we would never have tolerated ever in areas of affluence,” Zimmer said. “But starting with the building program there really is a commitment to equity, and to dreams, and to transformation in public education.”

Zimmer pointed to 48 new magnet schools he helped promote and 20 new dual-language programs. He also strongly advocates for early education programs. He said he believes he can accomplish his goals with more community involvement which includes charter organizations, business leaders, government institutions, and minority groups.

“I am a person who believes in collaborative change,” Zimmer said. “We can do more when we work together than against each other.”

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