LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer talks about getting back to basics
Steve Zimmer was first elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board in 2009 after coming to town as a Teach for America trainee and then teaching for 17 years. Now he helps guide the nation’s second-largest public school system, serving nearly 700,000 students as the newly elected board president and representative for District 4, which encompasses a vast and varied swath of the city that includes Tarzana, Encino and other portions of the San Fernando Valley, as well as Venice, Mar Vista and Hollywood.
The 45-year-old Hollywood resident and New York native, who davens at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard and spends the High Holy Days at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson, recently took time in his 24th-floor downtown office to talk about the recent school board election, the new technology plan and what it’s going to take to bring families back to LAUSD. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Jewish Journal: Do you miss the classroom?
STEVE ZIMMER: Every day. That’s why I was just out. Stephen Wise Temple does some of our Freedom Schools, a program with the Children’s Defense Fund. We were able to connect them with some very high-poverty schools in the Valley. I was just there this morning. So I do try to be in a classroom or school or around kids or families in some way every day, because this building can be very far removed from the children and families we impact. I think of myself as a teacher, a counselor, on special assignment.
JJ: You represent a huge area of Los Angeles. How did this come to be?
SZ: The district was created through obscene political gerrymandering. No more obscene than any other district; mine just happens to be a piece of bizarre art.
JJ: And how do you represent these various areas fairly?
SZ: You have to be balanced. I represent all. But there is no question in my mind who needs the school district more. Equity questions are not personally difficult for me. I’m not interested in fairness, so to speak, because this system has not been fair to poor children at all. But … there is a challenge to balance how much time and effort we spend addressing the needs of families living in severe poverty every day.
JJ: Are there particular issues unique to your San Fernando Valley constituents and schools?
SZ: I think that there are. Diversity in the Valley, especially in the portion of the Valley that I serve, is one of the most unique opportunities in this generation to embrace authentically diverse schools. Woodland Hills in particular is a community that has a vast diversity — I think of Taft High School. I have two high schools that are literally the United Nations: Fairfax and Taft.
In the West Valley, we have the advantage of a certain level of stability, a baseline of stability both in our schools and in our economy and housing. That is not true in other areas of Los Angeles. Because we have a stability baseline, we can take public education and authentically diverse public education to a whole new level, really a kaleidoscope celebration of different cultures.
JJ: In recent years, LAUSD’s enrollment numbers have consistently been going down. What can be done to reverse this trend?
SZ: Unless families believe that their neighborhood LAUSD school is going to be the conduit through which their family can achieve the American dream, they aren’t going to choose LAUSD. We have to offer instructional pathways that have the quality and the attraction value that will lead families to choose us. So: magnet programs for across the district, instructional designs that are specialized that are very attractive, dual-immersion programs, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs. …
I believe in choice, but I am very, very wary. I am very cognizant of the damage that competition has done to our schools. And we became obsessed with data instead of being data-informed. When a system becomes so obsessed with competition that they view children through their potential to score versus their overall humanity, the dehumanization of that public school system is not something that is attractive to parents, is not something that is warm and inviting. And our public schools, to my great regret, have become test score-obsessed. A lot of charter schools have, too.
JJ: How do we change that?
SZ: It’s about balance, about returning us to the purpose and objective of public education as it relates to families — to meet and fulfill the American dream. That is not a test-driven process. So I believe we reverse that by returning to our roots.
JJ: Is that view shared by your colleagues on the board?
SZ: Right now, we share an understanding that the cost of cutthroat competition in the public education system is greater than the real gains for some children.
JJ: You’re a big proponent of universal preschool. But Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines wants to get rid of the district’s half-day preschools and instead offer full-day preschool, significantly reducing the overall number of preschool spots.
SZ: Vexing question. Very deep. We’re going to do everything we can to use money the state has allocated to replace seats that this plan adjusts. There is actually a gain in hours but a loss in seats. Children coming to our kindergarten classes where there are severe school readiness gaps, these equity needs are going to be addressed. The problem is, from a facilities perspective and literally a numbers perspective, if we are going to address the equity issue, there is going to be some temporary seat loss, especially in communities where people can afford private options.
JJ: The recent school board election felt very much like a vote that was either pro- or anti-charter school. Is that how it feels on the board?
SZ: I think there is a difference between support for existing charter schools that parents have chosen [and new charter schools]. I respect and support those choices as long as the charter is doing very well, and I mean very well.
JJ: Why a different bar for charter schools?
SZ: Because that’s why charters are supposed to exist: either to provide something better, or unique and innovative. Otherwise there’s no compelling reason to authorize them.
JJ: Do you think there’s any chance to roll back the charter trend?
SZ: We have the most charters of any school district in the nation. We have incredibly high levels of saturation. If choice is so important, the California Charter Schools Association agenda and the Walton Family Foundation and other foundations’ agendas to situate more and more charter schools within the LAUSD boundary is not about children. It’s not about choice. It’s not about innovation. It’s about a very different agenda of bringing down the school district, an agenda to dramatically change what is public education. It’s about altering the influence of public sector unions. I just happen to disagree with that agenda. But folks should be explicit about what their agenda is.
I’m actually very proud we have some of the highest-performing charters in the country. It takes a lot for me to not renew or to close down an existing charter. But at the point we’re at, a new charter has to be compelling. It has to offer something we don’t have right now, and that is a high bar. I am unapologetic about it.
JJ: You were a supporter of the iPad initiative. Where is LAUSD right now with technology?
SZ: The iPad program was the best idea with the worst plan of any initiative I have ever supported in my life. It really is like iPadgate. We were told it was within our grasp to eradicate the digital divide. This is the public-education version of a bright, shining lie. It was the single most disappointing moment of my board career.
What’s going to happen now? The new technology plan will be a very diverse one with tech labs at schools, some tablets for elementary school students, and hybrid machines for middle school and high school students. It’s going to take a while. Five to seven years.
But we’re starting now. We’re not waiting.
JJ: It seems like a lot of the dialogue relating to LAUSD pits teacher against student. If something is good for students, it’s bad for teachers and vice versa.
SZ: How it’s said in my world is whether you have a kid agenda or an adult agenda. That is an incredibly deceptive political construct. Anybody who has spent their career in public school knows that’s a lie. When you’re supporting teachers, you’re supporting kids. When you create a better environment for learning, you’re supporting kids and everyone who works with them.
That lie — kids versus adults — that lie is a subterfuge about what part of the reform movement is about, which is eviscerating or lessening the influence of public sector unions. A lot of that is focused on teacher unions. Teacher unions are teachers. I’ve been very critical of my own union and the union I consider to be an ally. [But] there’s a difference between being critical of different policies of a labor union and believing that union should not exist. And a lot of money that fuels the charter and reform movement is by people who believe teacher unions should not exist.
JJ: Let’s end with a happy LAUSD story. Do you have one?
SZ: I’ll share two brief stories. We had our first graduates from the continuation school program we built. We worked with the Los Angeles Youth Network. [The school is] specifically designed to serve kids living in emergency homeless shelters. It is situated in our field office, in East Hollywood.
Also, the student recovery work we have done. Cortines and I initiated this program. We have this particular day every year in the fall where we get all the lists of the students who have dropped out or been pushed out of our schools. We empty this building and all the district offices. We get our social workers and community volunteers, and we literally go door to door looking for them all. It’s like a campaign. We have phone banks. The sole purpose is to find kids and bring them back. We have a very simple message: We miss you. We’re not complete without you. We have over 6,000 diplomas we have been able to issue [through this program] over five years. That is, bar none, the thing I am most proud of in my board term.