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Stuck in the Middle: Steve Zimmer

Hillel Aron | September 4, 2012

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School board member Steve Zimmer

The first thing I notice when stepping into the office of Steve Zimmer, the 42 year-old LAUSD school board member, is the Cesar Chavez poster on the wall — a copy of which Deasy has, too.

The second thing is the expansive view from the 24th floor of LAUSD’s massive hilltop headquarters looking out over much of Downtown LA. I’ve always had a kind of soft spot for the building. Zimmer doesn’t feel the same way.

“It represents everything that’s wrong with the district,” says the Teach For America alumnus who was initially aligned with other school reformers on the board but has at times clashed with them since then.

“Really?” I ask, surprised.

“The whole district, it should be accessible to people, it should be accessible to the community. You shouldn’t have to worry about parking, security. It’s antithetical to idea of community-based schooling.”

“That being said,” he adds, “I do like the view.”

If at times Zimmer appears to be conflicted, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, it’s because well, he is. A liberal who believes both in collective bargaining and systemic change, Zimmer says he never expected to be an elected board member with shared responsibility over the LAUSD school system. Elected with strong support (and money) from UTLA, but with a mandate to find consensus, Zimmer often functions as the swing vote on the LAUSD school board in 4-3 votes. When we met last Monday, he compared his role on the board to “having a loaded gun to my temple” and described the controversial policy of identifying low-performing district schools and converting some of them to semi-autonomous charter schools as a “declaration of war.”

LA School Report: How long have you lived in LA?

Steve Zimmer: This is my 20-year anniversary. I came out here with Teach for America 3 weeks after I graduated from college.

LASR: Where did you teach?

SZ: I started at Jefferson, and then I landed at Marshall High School. That’s where I spent my career.

LASR: Talk about Teach for America.

SZ: When it started, it was about going to places in the country where there literally weren’t enough teachers, and about getting people into high need-schools who wouldn’t have ordinarily thought about a teaching career. So I was one of those people.

LASR: How has Teach For America changed?

SZ: Teach for America has become very, very aligned with the charter movement. I guess not improbably. And I’m only concerned about that because if the charter movement has a constant stream of new teachers that they’re recycling all the time, that allows them to have a completely different level of playing field, in terms of its ability to keep class size low.

LASR: You’re seen as the swing vote on the board. Do you see yourself that way? Are you conscious of that?

SZ: Oh, I mean, that’s like asking if this loaded gun to my temple is something I’m conscious of.

LASR: That’s a striking metaphor.

SR: I very much thought I was gonna spend my whole career at Marshall High School. It wasn’t like I was looking for something different. But folks reached out to me – the Teach for America community, and the labor community – and folks asked me to be kind of a bridge candidate. I was very seduced by that. I use that word intentionally. I really believed that that’s what people wanted. And I was elected on that platform. It turned out that nobody wanted that. That coalition lasted exactly 43 seconds.

LASR: Haha.

SZ: No, literally, you can go back and watch the board meeting. You can watch the speech I gave, that was certainly a labor speech, but also a high expectations speech. And then [CEO of Green Dot] Marco Petruzzi and [onetime school board candidate and Parent Revolution Executive Director] Ben Austin got up to the microphone, the first public speakers that day, and introduced Public School Choice [a mechanism for low performing schools to gain greater autonomy from the district, sometimes through becoming charter schools]. The same day I was installed.

LASR: And so you took that as an affront to you?

SZ: Not an affront to me. It’s not about me. But it was certainly a declaration of war. No one denies that. I was in a position to build bridges and to open lines of communication and to find consensus and policy things that folks could coalesce around. But no one wanted that.

So ever since then, it’s really been a personal and political and ethical tug of war. I don’t adhere to the orthodoxy of either side. There are things about UTLA’s positions that I firmly disagree with. I agree with them about some things– I strongly feel that teachers and folks who work in public schools should be represented by public sector unions. But I also believe in fundamental change in our schools.

I think the original ideals of the charter movement have been completely co-opted by folks whose goal is really not change for children, but to eliminate public sector unions. I stand against that, as much as I stand against the status quo.

You have a union that says, “Wait, wait, stop, no, delay,” and you have children on the ground who are the collateral damage of that position. You have a reform movement that says, “Immediate change, high velocity, no matter what the cost is.”

LASR: How much of LAUSD’s enrollment decline is due to charter enrollment?

SZ: There are 110,000 students in charter schools within the LAUSD boundaries. Are there good things about that? Sure. Does competition in some places create the lightening rod for change? I can believe that. Does competition in and of itself create transformation in the system at a time of the worst budget crisis since the great depression? No.

And so what I say to folks in the charter community right now is, you have 23% to 24% of the market share in Los Angeles. I’m not sure if the goal is 30%, 35%, or 40%. I mean, what happens to the other 490,000 students? What’s the plan for them?

Anyway, I’ve tried to find a middle ground, or some type of ground, to stand on that honors why I ran for this in the first place. That’s been… you know, you don’t sleep a lot when you try to do that.

LASR: So do you support AB 5? [Withdrawn on Friday, AB 5 would have limited use of student achievement data in teacher evaluations required under the Stull ACT.]

SZ: I’m generally supportive of the idea that [teach evaluation] has to be collectively bargained, I’m generally supportive of the idea that [student achievement data used for teacher evaluation] has to be more than one standardized test.

LASR: What’s going on with your proposal to reject the use of AGT [Academic Growth Over Time, a measurement that computes student progress based on results of the California Standardized Test] as a way to evaluate teachers?

SZ: There are real problems with AGT. It only measures, at the most, 55% of our teachers. But beyond that, it’s based on only one test. I won’t be satisfied with an AGT score unless it includes multiple measures.

Edited and condensed for clarity.

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