In Partnership with 74

Commentary: Why Zimmer *Really* Switched Sides

Unai Montes-Irueste | February 21, 2013

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

This is a guest commentary from Unai Montes-Irueste, a former classroom teacher who spent much of last year blogging for Leadership for Educational Equity, the political recruitment spinoff of Teach For America, and is now a contributor to

School Board member Steve Zimmer

A school board race in the second largest public education system in the nation has become the latest ground zero in the theatre of war between education reformers and teachers unions.

But that’s not what’s most interesting about the looming March 5 primary election.

The story most worth telling is the evolution of Steve Zimmer — whose first campaign was created, carried out, and celebrated by education reformers connected to organizations such as Teach For America and Leadership for Educational Equity — who seemingly awoke one morning and became a reliable proponent of positions espoused by organized labor leaders, a staunch opponent of those held by the people who made his 2009 candidacy possible, and a critic of views he himself once espoused.

How and why have Zimmer’s views changed so dramatically over the past four years?  The answers may surprise you.

The Los Angeles Times’ recent endorsement of Board Member Zimmer’s opponent, Kate Anderson, is telling. Assessing Zimmer, the Times wrote: “He has fallen short in the execution of his goals, with proposals that smacked of trying to please union bosses. Zimmer’s proposal to tighten oversight of charter schools, for example — a reform that’s badly needed—came with a poison-pill provision establishing a moratorium on all new charters until the district developed a new monitoring system. That wasn’t just a destructive attack on charter schools; it was almost certainly illegal under state law. As a result, an important proposal went down in flames.”

That’s not all he’s done by way of blocking reforms.  Zimmer also led the charge to exclude charter management organizations and other outside nonprofit entities from LAUSD’s public school choice process. He outright rejected Academic Growth over Time (AGT) — LAUSD’s value-added metric in the district’s multiple measures evaluation system. Zimmer recently earned a failing report card from the California Charter Schools Association and a lackluster one from Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now Advocacy.

New York University professor, Diane Ravitch, the country’s most vocal critic of education reform, recently took to her blog to pick apart the editorial and defend Zimmer: “The Times is flabbergasted that Zimmer called for a moratorium on new charters… L.A. already has more charters than any other city in the nation, so it would hardly have been a burden to delay adding more… In their eyes, it’s okay for big money to overwhelm the political process. They worry not at all about the corruption of democracy.”

Ravitch has adopted the language of the Occupy movement to frame Zimmer as a champion of the 99%, and all those working to elect Anderson, his opponent, as agents of what she derides as the “Billionaire Boys Club,” intent on dismantling public education.”

Ravitch isn’t alone in trying to bolster and recast Zimmer’s campaign.  Earlier this month, Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country, flew to L.A. to hold a joint press conference with Zimmer. She criticized the use of test scores in evaluations, denounced the parent trigger, opposed charter school expansion, and promote UTLA’s Expanded School Based Management model as a viable alternative for raising academic performance and enrollment numbers. More recently, she derided the $1 million contribution to the reform slate of candidates by New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

But it wasn’t always this way.  In fact, four years ago things were much, much different.

When he first ran for school board, Zimmer’s fundraising, communications, and field campaign teams, were headed by Green Dot Schools and KIPP Schools management team members, Wonder of Reading and Camino Nuevo Charter Academy executives, an Achievement Network director, a Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights executive, two emeritus TFA Los Angeles executives, and the head of the policy team responsible for the development and implementation of AGT (which UTLA has fought tooth and nail).

He was endorsed by Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A.’s highest profile champion of UTLA-opposed education reform proposals.

Here’s sample of how he talked back then: “Too many students don’t perform at grade level, too many campuses aren’t safe, and too many parents and communities feel disempowered and without high quality choices when it comes to their children’s education…  We need this district to focus on: (1) Safe schools for every student; (2) Meaningful options for every family; (3) Excellence in every classroom; and (4) Actionable decision-making at every school site.”

With few exceptions, the inner circle of Zimmer’s inaugural campaign are silent today regarding their history with him. Ravitch, Weingarten, and UTLA are equally silent when it comes to Zimmer’s previous positions and his longstanding self-identification as a TFAer who has played a prominent role in every major regional and national event the organization has had over the last two decades — not to speak of his ongoing solicitations of support from TFA Corps members and alumni, through LEE, its sister organization.

Those who conclude that Zimmer became an opponent of present education reform efforts because he “changed his mind” are incorrect. Nor is this shift an indication of any “tragic flaws” observed the Jewish Journal in a 2011 profile.

The best explanation for Zimmer’s hardline on these issues is twofold — and realpolitik.

First, Zimmer recognizes that organized labor provides the most reliable stream of both campaign funds and volunteers who can knock on doors and make calls to voters. The education reform community has been able to reliably fundraise but hasn’t been able to consistently mobilize enough bodies to turn folks out. Luis Sanchez’s loss in the 2011 school board race, and Brian Johnson’s 2012 State Assembly Primary defeat, are proof of this phenomenon. If Zimmer sided with reformers on teacher evaluations or school choice, UTLA would stop buttering his bread.

Second, Zimmer knows that the only way for him to win re-election and eventually become Board President is to ally himself with UTLA.

Zimmer has been politically savvy enough to avoid openly taking on Garcia during Villaraigosa’s time as Mayor. Even after the election of Board Member Bennett Kayser to the seat previously occupied by Yolie Flores-Aguilar made Garcia vulnerable, Zimmer embraced a strategy that favored long-term benefit over short-term gain. By positioning himself as the Board’s “swing vote,” he created wiggle room for himself with independent voters sympathetic to aspects of the education reform agenda, while utilizing his elevated role to deliver for UTLA on school choice and teacher evaluations.

Assuming he is re-elected, look for Zimmer to run for Board President.

Read Next