Education

KPCC's LA school board candidate survey: Steve Zimmer, District 4

Steve Zimmer is running for re-election to the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Zimmer currently represents District 4, which covers much of west L.A., Hollywood and portions of the southwest San Fernando Valley.
Steve Zimmer is running for re-election to the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Zimmer currently represents District 4, which covers much of west L.A., Hollywood and portions of the southwest San Fernando Valley.
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Steve Zimmer is running for re-election to the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Zimmer currently represents District 4, which covers much of west L.A., Hollywood and portions of the southwest San Fernando Valley.

Zimmer is one of four candidates running for the District 4 seat. Click here to view survey responses from other candidates in the race.

KPCC lightly edited all responding candidates' answers for spelling, grammar and style. KPCC is presenting candidates' answers in full, but does not vouch for the accuracy of any statements they make. Here are Zimmer's responses to KPCC's candidate survey:

Why do you want to be a member of the L.A. Unified School Board?

I’m running for re-election because our work on the equity mission is far from done. I’ve been able to work together with our LAUSD family to survive the worst economic recession crisis ever to face the school district. We’ve made real and substantial gains in arts education, in access to STEM education, in expanding magnet, and language programs. Most importantly, we’ve raised graduation rates from 56 percent to over 75 percent since I got on the Board. But we’re not nearly done. My whole career has been about access and equity and bringing people together to bring change in their schools and in public education. I wake up every day and go to sleep every night thinking about the students who are struggling the most and making sure we develop strategies that ensure that dreams come true for all children and all families who come to our school house door every day.

Superintendent Michelle King is in her thirteenth month in the district’s top job. On an A-F scale, how would you grade her first year? Please explain your answer.

I think it’s offensive to ask for a grade on an A-F scale for Superintendent King. The job is much more complex than that, the relationship is much more dynamic. Even with student achievement, we use multiple measures, whether portfolio assessment or project based learning. So I don’t believe in giving the superintendent a letter grade anymore than I believe in ranking schools. I’m not going to give her a letter grade.

What I will say is there are areas in which I think the superintendent is excelling. Her focus on equity and on graduation is laser like and she uniquely knows how to bring all the forces together when there is a clear goal.  She has been a galvanizing force, especially around graduation. She has done an extraordinary job working with the board; we have a strong and close working relationship. We disagree on certain issues. There is the proper amount of creative tension that exists in the relationship. But she is able to both work with the Board as a whole and with individual board members in a way that frankly I have not seen from another superintendent either here or anywhere across the country. So that’s been extraordinary.

I think that the other thing that Ms. King has done which can’t just be evaluated in a grade is how she has taken the well of trust that she built over 30 years in the LAUSD family, and she’s expanded it and she has transferred that into this new role in a way that I don’t think anyone else could.  

Are there areas for improvement? Certainly, in terms of managing the really dynamic portfolio and figuring out how you balance autonomies at school sites and decentralizing, both budget and staffing decisions with the need for stable leadership and stability at the district level. That’s an area where I think we’ve got more work to do to figure that out.  I also think being able to really to translate the district and this equity mission in ways that everyone in the public can understand and get behind is something that her second year will really be about. Public education and the L.A. Unified School District’s equity mission was something that we needed to really embrace and get behind as our district family. I look to Michelle King in the next year being able to broadcast that and build the support of the entire civic establishment.

Please name one idea or policy you don’t see Superintendent King, district leaders or the school board discussing often enough that — if elected — you’d work on either implementing or expanding in L.A. Unified?

The most important thing that we can do right now and that we are not discussing enough is for us to galvanize the forces of this district and the forces of greater Los Angeles around closing the school readiness gap. What I mean by that is a massive investment in early childhood education, on an equity basis is absolutely doable.  We’ve seen already the positive effects of LAUSD opening 15,000 "eTK" (early transitional kindergarten) seats in the areas of highest concentration of poverty in our district. If we could assure that every child within Los Angeles County had access a high quality, early education, rich with social emotional learning and community engagement and that those programs were tied to a highly effective early literacy program we could close this school readiness gap, the reading by 9 gap and we could do an extraordinary amount towards making sure that we close the opportunity gap and ultimately the achievement gap.

And here’s one more idea. When I look at problems, I look at 360-degree solutions.  When I look at our next generation of early education teachers, I look to our moms who can get on that bus every day, sometimes for an hour or an hour and a half to take care of the children in our wealthiest communities. I want to establish a program with our adult schools and our community colleges where moms who are now domestic workers in our wealthiest communities can get their early childhood certification and become the next generation of early education teachers in their own communities.

Do you believe expanding “school choice” policies (giving parents more ability to choose the school their child attends) is a force for eliminating or exacerbating the educational opportunity gap between privileged and less-privileged racial, linguistic or socioeconomic groups? Please explain your rationale.

There’s no clear answer to this question. It’s both. When we do it right and we use school choice and expand school choice especially within LAUSD and we value school choice as a pillar of what it means to be part of LAUSD not just in communities of affluence but communities that are diverse all over the city, school choice can be force for eliminating the education opportunity gap. When it’s not, when it is about "choice for some", or an agenda that is "some kids, not all kids," it exacerbates this gap.

Let me talk about three programs that make it so that school choice can be used as a lever for eliminating the education opportunity gap. The first one is Spanish dual-language programs.  Because what Spanish language dual immersion programs do is, they create the possibility for truly integrated class rooms, they also value language the first language of the child, particularly of our Latino immigrant children. Language is much more than just words; language is family, it’s culture, it’s community, it’s history and it’s love. When you elevate those things, particularly in diverse settings, it changes how a teacher views a student. But it also makes the student and the parent their language skills are an asset. And beyond being really good pedagogy, it psychologically prepares the students for excellence throughout their school career. Spanish language dual immersion programs are one example of school choice options that truly can eradicate the opportunity gap.

I also believe very strongly in magnet programs and the role they can play in building integrated schools.

I also believe very strongly in pilot schools and teacher initiated and school site initiated autonomous school models. These can also be very, very strong school choice programs. 

Where school choice can be dangerous is when you have such saturation of choice and particularly of independent charter schools that the neighborhood schools, which are the anchor of our system, end up being injured in ways that are very hard to ameliorate. We have to remember that the foundation of public education is strong neighborhood schools, and while I believe in choice, I don’t believe we can have so much choice that one child’s choice will come to injure the right of another child.

How, if at all, would you change L.A. Unified’s approach to “authorizing” and overseeing charter schools? (Your answer may touch on any facet of the relationship — from vetting applications to open new charter schools; renewing or revoking existing charters; monitoring charter schools’ performance, governance and finance; handling Prop. 39 campus-sharing arrangements.)

LAUSD has authorized more independent charter schools than any other school district in the nation. And by and large, our charter schools perform very well in every facet of their operations. They are particularly strong in improving education outcomes for students who historically have struggled in public schools. 

Now, you can give all of the credit for that to the charter schools themselves and I do give our charter partners credit where they have done excellent work, Camino Nuevo, Synergy, other networks, that have really done a phenomenal job. But I also believe that LAUSD and our Charter Schools Division deserve some of the credit as well. We work very hard, we have very high expectations and very high standards. Do we always get it right, 100 percent of the time? Of course not, but for the overwhelming part the authorizing relationship with our charter partners works. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is.  We should be able to set up a system for charters that are doing excellent work so they can have a streamlined renewal process. Then we can devote more resources to the charters that are deeply struggling. In some ways I think that our oversight over finances and governance needs to be even stronger.  It doesn’t need to encroach on autonomies, but we need to make sure we are safeguarding the public trust and the public dollar. 

Whether you are a public school, charter, magnet, traditional neighborhood school, the definition of a public school is that it serves every child that comes through the schoolhouse door. It is also true that if you are a public school, you must have transparency with your finances and you must have transparency with your governance. We work very, very hard every day to make that happen in our Charter Schools Division. There is always room for improvement, and I will continue to advocate for us to get stronger and stronger in this area.

L.A. Unified faces long-term financial challenges, including declining enrollment and rising costs for pensions and employee benefits. A blue-ribbon panel in Nov. 2015 also highlighted further issues that cloud the district’s financial future. If elected, what immediate steps would you take to address these financial challenges?

The financial challenges that face the District — declining enrollment, expanding costs; but also the inadequacy of state funding, being 43rd in the nation; the inequity in the special education process and the federal government’s failure to meet the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 40% mandate — create a structural deficit in our budget that we address every year. It creates some long-term stresses.

What we have been able to do throughout the worst financial crisis that we faced from 2009 into 2012, what we do every year when we are faced with inadequacies, is bring everyone together to create budget stability. This is the model that I have championed and navigated since I’ve been on the board. And we’ve balanced the budget every year, and we’ve made sure that we have AAA bond rating, every year even throughout this crisis.

So, yes, there are long-term stresses and short terms stresses on the District’s budget. Immediately what we need to deal with is we need to make sure that we use every tool in the tool box to cut costs, to cut costs away from the budget, to redirect resources toward schools and toward classrooms and to make strategic cuts where we need to make them where they will not injure a child’s education.

Now, on the long-term challenges, we need to bring people together with the trust that we’ve built through these crisis budget years. We are not going to solve the long-term pension and health care liabilities by taking a sledge-hammer to our labor partners. We’re going to solve them by using the trust that we built as a lever to push them even harder to create collaborative solutions. We’re heading towards what I call "the UAW moment" as it relates to our health care, and we are going to have to make some very tough decisions together so we can have a new reality to address our ongoing and long-term costs. We can do that while staying focused on student achievement and on making sure American Dreams come true through our public schools.

The L.A. Unified board has set a district-wide goal of a 100 percent high school graduation rate. How, if at all, would you change the district’s approach to meeting this goal? (Or would you change the goal itself?)

Of course 100 percent graduation is a legitimate and valid and appropriate goal for the Los Angeles Unified School District. And it must include full fidelity to implement the A-G requirements.

This question is not even a question that people ask in affluent suburban school districts. It’s assumed. We’re trying to change the deficit mindset about the children of the Los Angeles Unified School District, their families, their schools, their teachers and their communities. So having a high mission focused expectations and goals is completely appropriate, but that’s not enough. Making sure that that graduation really means something both in terms of job skills and college readiness for all students, especially students who have not had access to the college dream in our state and in our city for generations. It has to mean something in terms of the real skills that students are graduating with, that our employers are telling us they need, the skills of collaboration, the skills of listening, the skills of communicating. That’s what 100 percent graduation is about. That’s what this march and this campaign is about, this march towards graduation is about.

And its also about making sure that it’s a fully rounded education, it’s a holistic education, it’s about making sure that 100 percent graduation means full access to arts education, to physical education, to health and nutrition education, to civics education. It’s about access to all the things that our students need more now than ever before. To graduate ready to change the city, to change the state, to change this country and to change this world. We need to make sure that socio-emotional learning is not just something that happens in elementary school, that it happens throughout the years. That we are intentional in teaching empathy, by teaching our students that we get to better by turning towards each other instead of against each other, that our diversity is our greatest strength, but that they can make a difference right now through social action and for standing up for the principles and values that they have both learned at home, learned in their community and learned in their school.

That is what 100 percent graduation is about. To have anything less than that movement, in this city at this time, at this moment would be a capitulation to the Trump Administration, to the DeVos Administration to all of the negative mindset, institutional racism, and direct racism and xenophobia that’s being directed our students and their families from the federal government today.

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KPCC lightly edited all responding candidates' answers for spelling, grammar and style. KPCC is presenting candidates' answers in full, but does not vouch for the accuracy of any statements they make.