Meet an LAUSD school board candidate — District 4’s Steve Zimmer: ‘This election is about losing children to the charter movement’
Mike Szymanski | February 27, 2017
Name: Steve Zimmer
Board district: 4
Lives in: Hollywood
Job: two terms on LA Unified’s school board, adjunct instructor at Occidental College in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department
Children in LAUSD: No
LAUSD schooling: No LAUSD. Attended public high school in Springfield, Mass.
Other education: A graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore where he was recognized as a Distinguished Alumni. Masters at CSU Los Angeles.
Platform: Bringing people together to bring change in their schools and public education. Access and equity for every student to reach their dreams through public education. Bilingual education, helping Dreamers, and 100 percent graduation.
Campaign funding: Zimmer has raised $159,812 and spent $86,974 as of Feb. 18. As of Feb. 24, independent expenditure committees funded by unions have spent $878,169 to support him, and IEs funded by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan and the California Charter Schools Association Advocates have spent $1,402,107 to oppose him.
Key endorsements: Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Planned Parenthood, Stonewall Democrats Club, United Teachers Los Angeles, Service Employees International Union Local 99, Armenian National Committee of America, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Congresswoman Judy Chiu, Los Angeles County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl.
It seemed like it took a long time for Steve Zimmer to start campaigning. His three opponents jumped in the race, held fundraisers and posted websites long before anyone heard from Zimmer, who is the school board president and has been elected twice to LA Unified’s board, first in 2009. Due to term limits, this is the last time he can run, and campaigning is not his favorite thing.
“We were in the process of doing it and we had to retool (the website) it because of what we saw (from the other campaigns),” said Zimmer, with the assurance that the campaign is in full gear now. “I’m a full-time board member in the midst of the throes of some very serious budget stuff. The campaign against me has tried to make it a campaign issue, but it’s a student issue that requires a lot of time, and requires a lot of internal and external navigation right now.”
He was surprised that former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan pledged $1 million to unseat him. “If it wasn’t him, it would be someone else,” Zimmer said. “They have no moral code. I’m not saying that UTLA and the labor side are kind, but some of these negative mailers are vicious, personal and immoral.”
Sitting at the Elysian Valley Community Services Center, Zimmer spoke while grabbing a quick kale salad and unsweetened green iced tea. He helped create the center that offers a library, internet access, and recreation to the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood and also houses a continuing education program. It was before yet another of a half dozen candidate debates in the most hotly contested of the three March 7 school board races.
“Everybody who’s running — Nick, Allison, Greg — everybody believes in kids, everybody wants to do the right thing. We just have radically different approaches.”
Even after they agreed during one forum that they all oppose Trump administration policies, Zimmer said he wouldn’t put himself in the same category as his opponents.
“I have nothing in common with them, we don’t agree on anything,” Zimmer insisted. “Because in order to wage this campaign, each of them knew they would have to be part of something ferociously negative and damaging and build a narrative of failure and crisis. Each of them knew there would be collateral damage to kids as part of that. I would have never done that.”
Zimmer started his educational career working for Teach for America in 1992 dedicated to educational equity, which became his guiding principle ever since. He served as counselor and teacher for 17 years at Marshall High School and took a pay cut of nearly half his salary to become a board member.
“I did not figure out teaching for 17 years, but I know that the idea that this district is a failure is counter-factual. You don’t raise graduation rates from 56 to over 75 percent to say we’re failing worse than eight years ago, it’s not true.”
He points to two primary points his opponents make. “They are pretty irresponsible lies,” Zimmer said. “The first is that there is a $1.3 billion deficit. Well, no one believes that. You only get that if you add up all the liabilities in their worst-case scenario and don’t use any of our assets. Nobody believes that that number is accurate. We wouldn’t be solvent if that were the case. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate budget concerns.
“What it’s really about is control of the school district and the charter system taking control of the school board. Even people who are strong charter supporters don’t want that.
“The second issue that is both fictional and a lie is that the district is an abject failure,” Zimmer said. “Are there areas of continued struggles and concern? Absolutely. I wake up in the morning thinking about that and go to bed at night thinking about that. But no one has offered any solutions.”
Zimmer pointed to increases in standardized test scores, magnet school expansion, and the success of implementing the A-G classes, which are needed to get into public state universities. He said he didn’t agree with allowing kids with D’s in those classes to graduate, but he said he agreed to compromise and go along with the 2015 board vote for the sake of unity.
“Are kids getting a college-level curriculum, are they getting the A-G’s? Absolutely, and that was not happening 10 years ago. Of course, it’s not flawless, we’re changing mindsets.
“We got suspensions down from over 75,000 days lost to instruction to under 6,000 this year, that’s not failure. That’s extraordinary!”
But Zimmer warned, “That’s not what this election is about. It’s about losing children to the charter movement.”
He said he believed the charter schools exploited the budget crisis during the recession in 2008 by creating more and more charter schools rather than improving the ones that already existed.
“The charter movement in Los Angeles used — and I would argue — exploited the budget crisis to have a massive acceleration of new charter schools,” he said. “The truthful analysis of us losing children to charter schools is that when the economy collapsed, our charter partners could have said, ‘Hey, we understand, you’ve authorized a lot of charters pre 2008-09 and we’re going to really perfect these models of innovation, work really hard with what we’re doing and make every charter school you’ve authorized truly outstanding and throughout this budget process and after the budget crisis you should stabilize yourselves and then we’ll talk about expansion,’ but that’s not what happened.
“It was a very shock doctrine way of approaching things as the schools were in crisis,” Zimmer recalled. “I believe in choice, and I have a very hard time reconciling myself as a board member saying no to an individual parent or charter school when there is a demand for it.”
He pointed out that he has authorized more charters than he has denied, but he added, “The loss of students to charter schools through declining enrollment is a very serious issue.
“You can only have so much expansion of this independent sector that is draining resources from what remains the primary public school system in LA. You can’t do that without injuring the academic experience with children who remain in LAUSD public schools, and the LAUSD public schools can’t really accelerate our own choice programs, our own innovation programs, our own student support programs when we continue to be in enrollment freefall.”
Zimmer said he supports many successful charter models, such as the independent conversion charter high schools including Palisades Charter High, where one of his opponents, Allison Holdorff Polhill, served on the board. “I support Pali, she did a good job while there. But we struggled with El Camino High (another charter conversion) because it was being led by someone who didn’t follow the rules. We’re trying to have a more transparent charter process.
“I’d lie down on the tracks for El Camino, they’re phenomenal. KIPP has a few very, very good schools, same with Synergy. Some of the Westside schools are pedagogically extremely progressive. But the real truth came out with Public School Choice when charters had to serve every child within the neighborhood boundaries and all charters except for two, Synergy and El Camino, were in the precise range as LAUSD schools or below. Charters with few exceptions are breaking through.”
Some schools should have been given more of a chance, such as PUC Excel Charter Academy and LA Leadership that didn’t get renewed, Zimmer said. But he disagreed with the board going against the Charter Division staff recommendations and helping a persistently failing school like they did in January with ICEF’s View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter Middle School in George McKenna’s district. “When you have 14 years to address these issues then yeah, they should not be renewed.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m closed to any new charters, I think that Crete Academy helping the homeless is great and could have been done in a district school but we didn’t provide that opportunity. They wrote an innovative and very progressive charter plan and I was happy to support it.
“But do we need more Green Dot or Alliance or Bright Star schools right now? I don’t think so.”
He added, “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done with our charter partners and give a lot of credit to teachers and parents in charter schools and I also take credit on behalf of the district because I think we did some really good balancing and great oversight with the correct support for autonomies and innovation. But if we are going to meet the dreams of all kids, and we are really going to meet our mission of serving every child who comes through the schoolhouse door, what we need to do right now is make sure that every school in the charter sector is at the level of our high-performing schools and we need to do the same thing with every school in LAUSD schools with every model that we have.”
Zimmer said he believes the district will change drastically in the next five years, and he wants to be a part of that change.
“I believe that we will have to radically decentralize this district over a five- to 10-year period,” he said, but that doesn’t mean breaking up the large district. “There’s no way to break it up with any equity. What it involves is making sure that more and more decisions are made at a school site level. It’s a fundamental shift, it’s not a shift that you do abruptly.”
Among his top accomplishments is leading the board in hiring Michelle King as the new superintendent, he said. “She is truly collaborative. I don’t run the school district, but we are in daily collaboration on most serious issues facing LAUSD.”
Zimmer traveled extensively to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento to lobby for additional revenue sources and pressed for an Education Jobs Bill that yielded $10 billion for education. “We are 43rd in the nation in per-student expenditures, and it is a precarious a time in public education.
“I don’t see myself as a politician, but I want to do this job. I’m an educator, not a politician, this is my last hurrah at the school board.” Zimmer said he doesn’t see himself running for city council or other political position but won’t give a categorical “no.”
Zimmer said he continues to champion arts education and saving the arts, and to get the word out that he tried to put a stop to the iPad program for two years. “I am trying to change some of the incorrect perceptions that are being made in the campaign.”
“They don’t know what it’s like to look in the eyes of parents who have chosen LAUSD and are afraid they are going to lose their neighborhood school,” Zimmer said, talking about charter schools using rooms at district schools under the Prop. 39 state law. “And there are other parents who feel like they have the manifest-destiny right to that space. Those are very hard issues to solve, and some are not solvable.”
Zimmer said that if the charter partners would agree on a number of how many students they want, then the district could stabilize and plan accordingly. “Then we could work together to solve facilities problems, and it isn’t a hostile takeover. You say you need three rooms to make your program grow and we can help, but if the goal is to take over, that’s not fair to the host school where there are real families, real kids, and real dreams.”
Zimmer added, “But don’t tell me that you will take whatever you want and the collateral damage is my problem.”
“The hopes and dreams and aspirations of children that depend on public education is everyone’s problem. And it’s everyone’s high honor to serve. I didn’t create the vitriol and the combat. There was a history, an ugly history, and a history of inequity and institutional racism, and we’ve done a lot to dismantle that system, but not enough. But when you are constantly draining resources, that becomes very difficult.”
For Zimmer, it remains about the children, particularly the 84 percent of the second-largest school district who live in poverty.
“Every time a single dream does not come true because we do not do our job better is not acceptable to me. I’m not satisfied until we have figured it all out.”