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School board race pits unions against billionaires

by Jonah Lowenfeld

February 20, 2013 | 2:09 pm

From left: Kate Anderson (Photo courtesy of Kate Anderson for School Board, 2013) and Steve Zimmer (Photo courtesy of Steve Zimmer for School Board, 2013).

From left: Kate Anderson (Photo courtesy of Kate Anderson for School Board, 2013) and Steve Zimmer (Photo courtesy of Steve Zimmer for School Board, 2013).

Probably the greatest impact of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $1 million gift last week to the Coalition for School Reform, an independent political group supporting a slate of three reform-minded candidates for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board seats, was on the potential for re-election by LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer.

At a house party on Feb. 17 in Venice, Zimmer, a 17-year veteran teacher who has represented the Westside on the LAUSD board for the last four years, remained defiant, issuing to his supporters a broad warning against outside spending on local elections. 

“When money tries to influence a race to this extreme — whether it’s money on the labor side or money on the corporate side — those of us who truly care about having independent voices on the school board should step back and think carefully,” Zimmer told the three dozen people gathered for the Sunday afternoon meeting. 

As of mid-January, Zimmer had raised only $31,000 for his campaign to continue representing LAUSD’s 4th District. He has also received significant independent support from labor groups: Three unions, including United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which represents LAUSD’s teachers, have spent a combined $375,000 on his behalf, as well as an additional $125,000 specifically directed at attacking his opponent in the race, attorney Kate Anderson. 

The coalition is backing Anderson, as well as incumbent board member Mónica García in the 2nd District, and newcomer Antonio Sanchez in the 6th District.

In the wake of Bloomberg’s record-breaking donation, the Coalition now has more than $2.5 million to spend in the three races across the district. Other well-off and well-connected education reform advocates from across the city and country — including philanthropist Eli Broad, entrepreneur and Pom Wonderful founder Lynda Resnick and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein — also have  contributed five- and six-figure sums to support their three-person reform slate. 

The movement’s opponents are watching closely and urging voters to reject their entreaties.

“The billionaire boys club wants to beat Steve Zimmer so they can proceed with dismantling public education in Los Angeles,” former U.S. Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, a vocal critic of charter schools, wrote on her blog on Feb. 1. “Steve had the nerve to say there should be some oversight of charter schools, so the privatizers are out to get him.”

Anderson, however, does not accept this characterization: “I don’t want to privatize our schools; I support nonprofit charter schools,” Anderson said. 

Anderson, who runs the L.A. office for the statewide child advocacy group Children Now, sends her 9-year-old twin daughters to Mar Vista Elementary, a traditional LAUSD school. Although she said her children’s school is “widely acknowledged to be one of the schools where parents are happy to send their kids,” Anderson said not every neighborhood school has that reputation, and she believes charters can fill the void.

“I want all parents to be able to feel as good as I do,” Anderson said. 

Anderson said that Zimmer’s 2012 proposal to impose what she called a “moratorium” on approving new charter schools was part of what pushed her into a race against a man she said she otherwise respects.

“I think Steve is a good man, and I think he has a good heart,” Anderson said in an interview on Feb. 15 in a cafe in Mar Vista. “But when push came to shove, he wasn’t putting kids first.”

Zimmer said his proposal has been misunderstood and misrepresented: “The great moratorium that everybody talks about was a 60-day report-back period for the superintendent,” Zimmer said in an interview this week, explaining it was a proposal that “during that 60 days, [the superintendent] wouldn’t approve new charter applications.”

Zimmer says he was asking for a “strategic plan” to guide growth for charter schools, which now educate 110,000 students in the district.

The measure was voted down by the board, by a 4-2 majority, in November.

“It’s the third rail,” Zimmer said.

Anderson is, in many ways, the perfect foil for the man she’s trying to unseat. Zimmer describes himself as someone who never aspired to public office before he was urged to run for LAUSD board four years ago; Anderson, a former aide to Congressman Henry Waxman, currently serves on the Mar Vista Community Council. She ran unsuccessfully for a California State Assembly seat in 2010.

“At this point, I’m glad I lost because I think I can add a lot more value as a board member,” Anderson said.

Both candidates are Democrats — Anderson calls herself a “pro-labor, pro-union, Henry Waxman Democrat” — while Zimmer has the endorsements of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and six local union groups.

But the symbolism of a race between a teacher with backing from the teachers union and a parent backed by charter school supporters is impossible to ignore — especially since another major issue separating the candidates is how to assess teachers.

As a board member, Zimmer helped to craft a new agreement between UTLA and the LAUSD that was ratified in January by the teachers union. That agreement includes, for the first time, a stipulation that each individual teacher’s effectiveness will be assessed, using multiple data points to measure his or her students’ achievement.

Anderson called the new agreement a step forward, and she approves of its use of in-class observation and parent and student surveys to assess teachers. But she said she disagrees with Zimmer on how student test scores are incorporated into the calculus.

“I think that the measures of student outcomes are, frankly, too mushy to be effective,” Anderson said during a candidate forum held Jan. 24 at the Boys & Girls Club of Venice.

Anderson also supports other policies that are anathema to teachers unions, including ending the system of hiring and firing that protects the tenure of the most senior teachers, regardless of performance. She also favors experimenting with a system of paying higher salaries for more successful teachers.

The last time Zimmer ran for office, in 2009, he received support from both labor and reform groups, and he said his aim was to bridge the two sides. Not this time, though.

“Any fantasies I had about people really wanting to be brought together were exploded really quickly,” Zimmer said.

But although the funding for this race hinges on different views of school reform, the coalition’s television ads are not slamming Zimmer for his positions on charter schools or on teacher evaluations. Instead, they blame him for laying off 5,000 teachers — an accusation he called “disrespectful” in an e-mail to supporters. Zimmer said he tried to stop those cuts and criticized the coalition for ignoring his record of bringing revenue into the district.

The anti-Anderson mailers paid for by UTLA’s political action council, meanwhile, focus on her poor attendance record at meetings for the Los Angeles County Child Care Planning Commission. Anderson called the accusation misleading, because she shared her seat with an alternate, who attended many of the meetings she missed.

Anderson said she’d prefer if there were a way to disarm the outside groups on both sides. But given Zimmer’s union backing, Anderson knows the coalition’s dollars are what make her a competitive candidate.

“I couldn’t win if I didn’t have their support,” Anderson said. 

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