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Could a single school board race determine LAUSD's future?

L.A. Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer outside the home of a high school dropout. He and other educators formed one of 10 teams out to
L.A. Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer outside the home of a high school dropout. He and other educators formed one of 10 teams out to "recover" students who'd stopped showing up to school. Zimmer and his team recovered 15 students from neighborhoods near Fremont High School in South L.A.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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School board races don’t usually garner much attention from the general public. But the races for three seats on LA Unified’s school board are making national headlines. None, more so than the race for District 4 between incumbent Steve Zimmer and lawyer, Kate Anderson.

That’s because people believe the winner of this seat will determine the future of LA’s public schools, and the rest of the country is watching.

Zimmer, 42, calls it a "pitched battle between the Humanists versus the Darwinists" and the "market-based competition over student enrollment."

What Zimmer is talking about, slouched over a plate of Kosher pasta on Valentine’s night, is the great schism among LAUSD’s seven sitting board members; At any given school board meeting the "Reformists", who vociferously support Superintendent John Deasy and an aggressively pro-charter agenda, are pitted against the pro-teacher and organized labor faction.

They’re evenly split and Zimmer, a former Teach for America teacher and school counselor has been the swing vote since he won the seat in 2009. But if he loses to challenger Kate Anderson, both sides agree, that will permanently tip the scales 4 to 3 in favor of a board that pushes for more charter expansion and data based teacher evaluations.

Ultimately, Zimmer said, losing that check and balance is detrimental. 

"Respectful disagreement and give and take between the Superintendent and the school board is actually the healthy relationship and dynamic that needs to exist to have the right type of balanced approach to creating transformational change." Holding his head in his hands he adds, "If I’m taken out, that’s gone. Absolutely gone."

But his opponent, Anderson, 40, has no qualms about aligning herself with Supt. Deasy's vision. "I support the reforms that Supt. Deasy has put in place," she said on a recent afternoon in one of the tiny offices at her campaign headquarters in West LA.

"I support his work to improve our teacher evaluation system, I support his work to bring and support more innovative models to the school system," she said. 

She’s a mother and the LA director of Children Now, an advocacy group for early childhood education and health. With twin girls in public school she said she’s seen enough to know “not every teacher is good.” And neither the district nor students should be saddled with sub-par teachers. Instead, she said, “lets find something else for you to do."

Anderson is not coming at this from the classroom experience. Before she became an advocate most of her career was in the world of politics. She’s a former Congressional staffer for Henry Waxman and Jane Hartman, and a former corporate lawyer.  In 2010 she ran for the state assembly now held by Betsey Butler.

Anderson said those experiences give her an advantage at crucial moment for LA schools.

“It’s a political position and I’m good in those worlds.”

Canvassing for signatures to get on the ballot she took the pulse of her district, a stretch that covers the Westside, east to Hollywood and north into the San Fernando Valley.  Going door to door she became convinced parents would pull their kids from private schools if they had more choices. She argues the greatest demand from parents in the area is for more charter schools.

And this is perhaps the place where Zimmer disagrees with her the most. He thinks that the charter movement is moving entirely too fast. In the last board meeting alone more than a dozen were approved.

And he’s also come out against tying teacher evaluations too closely to student performance. He thinks teaches are being villainized and that long term, that will hurt kids.

“It’s a loss for the concept that we really can have people who are educators serve as decision makers about education, and that’s a real loss,” he said.

On the other hand, what makes him a swing vote is that he’s completely behind keeping staunch reformer Supt. Deasy who is constantly at odds with Zimmer’s backer – UTLA.

“Taking difficult stands, that were sometimes contrary to labor has softened my support.”

Like any political race who wins may come down to who spends the most. And that’s why it’s drawn the national spotlight and why it’s drawn money from as far away as New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, just last week, pumped $1 million into the reform candidate’s coffers, ensuring that they’ll maintain much bigger war chest than anyone on the labor slate.

So far spending on behalf of Zimmer and Anderson has been pretty even – about a half a million dollars on each - but with two weeks to go, Anderson has the bigger piggy bank to draw from.

Unlike other races that have multiple candidates the District 4 seat will be decided on Tuesday March 5.  

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