Interview: Schoolyard Scuffles

Posted September 16, 2015 by The Argonaut in News

LAUSD Board of Education President Steve Zimmer on the winner-take-all attitudes that are hurting public schools

Steve Zimmer, who represents the Westside on the LAUSD board  and is now its president, says the California Charter Schools  Association has taken “a combat approach” to occupying space  on public school campuses

Steve Zimmer, who represents the Westside on the LAUSD board
and is now its president, says the California Charter Schools
Association has taken “a combat approach” to occupying space
on public school campuses

The new Common Core state standardized test results are in, and they don’t look great for LAUSD.

Nearly a year after the departure of Supt. John Deasy, the school district still awaits new permanent executive leadership.

Traditional public school enrollment is declining as charter schools pick up more students and move into empty LAUSD classrooms, while specialized education programs designed to keep families from leaving the district are encountering resistance from neighborhood schools.

Steve Zimmer, the longtime Westside LAUSD board member who became president of the board in July, has a lot on his plate.

A former high school teacher and counselor, Zimmer says he hopes to chart a different course than past LAUSD board presidents — one less-defined by political friction and internal division. But he does not mince words about his dislike of the California Charter Schools Association, whose independent expenditure committee spent heavily against him during his 2013 reelection bid, a race that drew national attention due to the involvement of billionaire Eli Broad and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Zimmer takes personal responsibility for the failure in June of his plan to transfer the popular Mandarin Chinese dual language immersion program from Broadway Elementary School in Venice to a new, $30-million facility on the Mark Twain Middle School campus in Mar Vista. Believing that most stakeholders would accept the program as part of a larger vision for a Westside language education pipeline was a critical mistake, he says.

“I was broadcasting a perspective that was shared by a very few,” Zimmer says. “I vastly overestimated the reservoir of goodwill, which is completely dry on the Westside. And there is not a first assumption of goodwill.”

— Gary Walker

What went wrong with your plan to move the Mandarin immersion students to Mark Twain?

Change is very hard for people. I don’t think, theoretically, that it was the wrong strategy, and three years ago it had a lot of support at many levels. What I should have understood was how difficult the fight would be to support a program but ensure the support for that program did not cause collateral damage to children in other programs.

I don’t think there will be a revisiting of a large construction project at Mark Twain, at least not in the immediate future. The pain is just too extreme, and without a willingness to do the kind of work that would be necessary to use this space in a different way and not create a major disruption in people’s lives, it cannot work. You have to have an absolute commitment to it at every level. And to force it down people’s throats at this point would have very negative reverberations.

Does this jeopardize your plans for the dual-language immersion pipeline?

I don’t think it will because I think it’s too strong. The challenge for LAUSD is to balance all of these things and approach our role as a district that can embrace, build and promote programs that will grow enrollment. The multi-language future of Venice is not just about Mandarin immersion. We have excellent programs in Spanish immersion at Grand View [Boulevard Elementary School] and an emerging program at Broadway that are also integral components.

Given that they’re back to sharing space at Broadway, what’s the future for the Mandarin program?

It is an outstanding instructional program and it is capable of adjusting. I have mad respect for the families who have endured the struggle with the Mandarin immersion program and who continue to believe that this can be done through the public school system. To say that we would lose the program if it was divided between two schools — I could say that I oppose that, but does that mean that it is a catastrophic end to the program? No, it means that it requires a significant adjustment to the program.

Stoner Avenue Elementary School in Del Rey seems to have an especially acrimonious co-location situation (charter schools sharing facilities with neighborhood campuses) with the Inner City Education Foundation. Why do such battles happen so frequently on the Westside?

The problem is there is no proactive plan, and no one sees anyone doing anything to bring people together. The behavior of the [California] Charter Schools Association as it relates to co-locations is one of the most hostile and aggressive — almost militaristic — approaches that I’ve ever seen. And that has blown apart any credibility that it will ever have with me. They are not an ‘all kids’ establishment. They are a ‘some kids’ organization, and that approach has been extraordinarily detrimental on the ground.

The combat approach that the charter schools association has and that LAUSD has fallen into has hurt public education. Proposition 39 [the 2000 state law that authorized co-locations] both in concept and in policy, has caused enormous and disproportionate injury.

Common Core has become a political litmus test in national politics, but can it help close the achievement gap?

It has not been as controversial in California as it has been in the rest of the country because we’ve already been teaching many of the same types of standards, so the transition to Common Core will not be as problematic here as it might be in other states. I think it has the potential — along with many other things — to help close the achievement gap. It will require a higher level of thinking and problem-solving [from prior standardized tests]. And there has to be a much higher level of expectation from the board.

The breakdowns really are around testing. We are always in danger of reverting to the teach-to-the test, high stress level of standardized testing, and we have to guard against that way of thinking.

Last year you pushed to get immigration law assistance for students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Will that continue?

Absolutely. I really believe that DACA students encapsulate what the role of public education is as a whole. It is incumbent upon us to seize the moment and provide whatever services to these kids that they need, because these are our kids.

What qualities are you looking for in LAUSD’s next superintendent?

The next superintendent has to be an equity champion when it comes to all students — not just some students. Whomever we choose has to be the kind of leader who understands that our equity mission succeeds when we all come together and not when we’re divided.

Did you have that type of leader during the last three to four years?

In the last several years we had someone who was a catalyst for equity, John Deasy. But when you have those types of leaders they can create a lot of fire and heat and division. Deasy chose to lead in a way that intentionally divided people instead of bringing them together.

I think we’re at a critical juncture in public education. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but if we don’t reverse the decline of student enrollment, all progress that we’ve made could be lost.



    The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) continues to be disappointingly astounded by LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer’s comments blaming it and charter schools for the failures of the school district to comply with its obligations under Proposition 39. His comments only add to and fuel the “enormous and disproportionate injury” he decries, and for which he blames CCSA and charter schools.

    While Mr. Zimmer always alludes to the burdens placed on the school district to comply with Proposition 39, he rarely recognize the fact that LAUSD was able to pass nearly $9 billion in school facility bonds in 2004 and 2005 only as a result of the lowering of the required voting majority under the law. Moreover, as recently as 2008, LAUSD passed a $7 billion bond measure that included $450 million to help address charter school facility needs. Sadly, the program has come to a stand still solely attributable to the school district. Despite the benefits of Proposition 39 that have accrued to its facility construction program, LAUSD only began meeting its legal obligations to offer district facilities to charter students and schools after CCSA sued it for violating a settlement agreement committing to do so in 2010. The California Supreme Court has even confirmed LAUSD’s flagrant violation of its legal obligations under Proposition 39 to charter students and schools.

    CCSA is guilty of many things. Guilty of holding all charter public schools to the highest standards of accountability, unequivocally advocating that students have equitable facilities as mandated by voters who passed Proposition 39 and by parents who select charters as an option for their children, and finally of holding elected school board officials accountable when they do not serve or consider the needs of all public school students for whom they are responsible, then render us guilty as charged.

    Our families, students and schools look to us to serve as exemplary models of leadership. Let us all step up to the plate to find a workable solution where co-locations, school bonds, adhering to the law under Proposition 39 and other measures are viable options and not detrimental roadblocks to educational opportunity. CCSA has proactively and tirelessly attempted to work in unified partnership with LAUSD to create solutions that serve families. As the LAUSD Board President, Mr. Zimmer should strive to be constructive and offer solutions for all of the school district’s public school students, including those attending charter public schools.

    Ricardo Soto,
    Senior Vice President, Legal Advocacy, and General Counsel
    California Charter Schools Association

      Cam Stevens

      Typical lobbyist!

      Lisa R.

      The same way you took our space from us is the same way we are going to get it back, I promise you this. What goes around, comes around! School yard shuffles end when people like you Ricardo Soto get what you deserve!

      Lisa R.

      You are an not an all kids establishment. You are a some kids establishment, and that is the reason we will continue to fight to get our space back from your charter organization. And we will not stop Ricardo Soto.

      Charter Family

      Thank you, CCSA, for advocating for charter families. We are tired of Zimmer and LAUSD discriminating against our kids, giving us sub-standard, second-class facilities, offering co-locations miles and miles from the areas where we live and forcing us to constantly move and split up our campuses or to spend money on private space. We are tired of Zimmer and LAUSD not only turning a blind eye to but encouraging bullies — often LAUSD teachers themselves — who harass our kids while they walk to school. It is no more OK to mistreat and discriminate against charter students today than it was to discriminate against minority students in the South during segregation. Charter families are tired of the bullying — often organized by UTLA and anti-charter activists. Our kids have a right to attend public charter schools, and Zimmer should stop picking on our kids. Be a leader, and encourage everyone to work together and to play nicely in the same sandbox. These anti-charter bullies need to go back to kindergarten and learn how to share and be fair.

        Gabriel Martinez

        The Charter School you want to create is an affluent some kids institution. This had everything to do with people like you gentrifying the neighborhood. This is why we’ve had the biggest increase in homelessness on record in Los Angeles because of people like you who think they can just walk into a neighborhood school, and kick latino and black students out. This is going to create the biggest backlash in Lausd history. When Charter Schools create poverty and homelessness it’s time to get out of the sand box and face the bully who started it all. That bully is the Charter School.

    Dee Howe

    As a public school teacher recently co-located on a campus with a charter school, I support any board member who questions the ethics of the charter school system. I would hope that the CCSA would not taut as “exemplary leadership” the charter school director who stood out in front of our gate during morning arrival advertising their school to our parents. Or would consider exemplary leadership sending out fliers to homes that “bad-mouth” our wonderful school. Is it fair to our REAL public school students when a charter school infiltrated our campus, demanding six classrooms when they only have two classes all year? Then demands another four the following year, essentially stealing for storage space our two music classrooms, displacing our kindergarten and first grade classrooms to second floor space? We need the school board to care and advocate for our students, as the district’s charter school division which is supposed to mediate these issues is IMPOSSIBLE to reach or find!
    Sorry CCSA, but the only thing that makes you better for LA’s most needy students is smaller class sizes– smaller is always better! If or real public schools enjoyed a ratio of 15:1, 20:1– imagine….
    I have tons of respect for those charter schools that established themselves to make an impact before charter became a fad and an easy road to bilk taxpayers (find the articles–the investigations are turning up all over the place). But all these new things popping up in the easiest “tough” neighborhoods– please! Is anyone caring enough about public education to set themselves up right next door to the projects in South LA, where our students are in greatest need of educational and emotional support? CCSA??? Anyone???

    Al Lonegen

    Amazing how this two bits Stalinist gets so much media,
    an open account, at the Jewish Journal, this weekly, & others…considering the fact that the “reporters” never ask him serious questions, he has a way with them, and when the reading is done, it leaves one with a hollow feeling, what is this “Community organizer’s” real agenda? It is surprising that so many airh-heads/morons finish schools in L.A County!

    Charter Parent

    I was outraged to read Steve Zimmer’s comments blaming the California Charter Schools Association for the contentious co-location at Stoner Elementary.
    Brothers Adam and Jose Benitez, the Stoner parent and LAUSD teacher who have led protests against co-locations by two separate charter schools at Stoner, have never given peaceful co-location a chance.
    Anti-charter activists held a protest on the very first day of school, and they have harassed and filmed little children, openly admitting that they are attempting to scare families away because they don’t want to share a half-empty campus.
    Not since schools were desegregated have our kids faced such intimidation for merely trying to receive an equal education. When Zimmer spews his anti-charter rhetoric, he not only blames the victim but also perpetuates a divisive climate that is unhelpful.
    When our school board leader pits charters against traditional schools – parents against parents – he shows a lack of leadership unbefitting his position.

      lisa R.

      You must think that we are just a few loud parents who aren’t going to foil your squatting in our schools. Think again. We are the few and powerful and we will never give up our fight against charter squatters like you!

        Charter Mom

        These are not YOUR schools. These are the public’s schools, and charters are public schools. The Prop 39 law calls for public charters to share equally in public school facilities. Zimmer does not respect this law and treats charter kids like second-class citizens. He routinely makes life difficult for charter families by offering charter schools space far from where their families live. He’s just mean about it. He seems to hate charter parents and charter kids. He has basically called charter parents racists for wanting to give our kids a good education. My kid is a minority, and I am offended by his divisive comments attacking me and my family.

          Gabriel Martinez

          Prop 39 doesn’t mean a thing when parents like us defend our schools from people like you. Perhaps instead of gentrifying our community to your liking, creating massive homelessness and poverty, and distinguishing yourself apart from Lausd as an affluent some kids school, you’d become a community member instead of an outsider stirring up problems. It’s your kids that our going to pay the price, not ours. Our kids are part of a community. Our kids are part of a stuck up Charter School.

          Gabriel Martinez

          Correction: Your kids are part of a stuck up Charter School.


    When we moved to the westside some years ago while our kids were in elementary schools. We were closest to Paseo Del Rey but we were turned away because it was a magnet school and we could not get in. We were not qualified because it was a full magnet. We were told we could go to a half magnet nearby but we would not be in the magnet program but the regular program. We had no choice but to put our money in a private school. I don’t know what Mr. Zimmer meant by some kids program because that was how we were treated by the regular public school, we were the some kids who could not get into the magnet program because we were locals. It is hard for us to be a local homeowners supporting our neighborhood schools. If LAUSD schools were doing well and available you wouldn’t have parents scrambling for charter schools. You also would not have some website with a mom consultant trying to help people plan their k-12 education. If you build a school, support the local neighborhood people, then you have something good that can actually help the people who take a bus at 5 in the morning to come here to a “better” public school. Many other cities do it, they support the people living around the school first and then people outside of the neighborhood.

    Gabriel Martinez

    You may think that by growing beards and being “hip” that it’s going to get you respect around here. Greed has many faces. Take a space ship to mars and stay there. And let “our” neighborhood kids and their families live in peace in the up and coming not so stuck up Westside. Quit trying to segregate the community you big Charter School bully.

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