Who Are the Billionaires Trying To Defeat Steve Zimmer?

03/03/2017 01:40 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2017
Steve Zimmer
Steve Zimmer

Some of America’s most powerful corporate plutocrats want to take over the Los Angeles school system and Steve Zimmer, a former teacher and feisty school board member, is in their way. So they’ve hired Nick Melvoin to get rid of him. No, he’s not a hired assassin like the kind on The Sopranos. He’s a lawyer who the billionaires picked to defeat Zimmer.

As a result, the race for the District 4 seat — which stretches from the Westside to the West San Fernando Valley — is ground zero in this battle over the corporate take-over of public education. The outcome of next Tuesday’s (March 7) election has national implications in terms of the billionaires’ battle to reconstruct public education in the corporate mold.

The corporate big-wigs are part of an effort that they and the media misleadingly call “school reform.” What they’re really after is not “reform” (improving our schools for the sake of students) but “privatization” (business control of public education). They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products, and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants, and others engaged in the big business of education.

Billionaire Walmart heiress Alice Walton lives in Texas but has donated big bucks to defeat LA school board member Steve Zimm
Billionaire Walmart heiress Alice Walton lives in Texas but has donated big bucks to defeat LA school board member Steve Zimmer

Congress recently confirmed Betsy DeVos -- a right-wing billionaire, charter school zealot, and enemy of public education -- as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. Now, more than ever, LASUD needs a savvy and principled school board member like Zimmer who will stand up to the billionaires and their attempted takeover of the nation’s second largest school district.

In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, historian Diane Ravitch calls this group “The Billionaire Boys Club,” an interconnected network of wealthy corporate leaders and philanthropists who’ve joined forces to promote market-driven school changes. This educational ruling class is used to getting what it wants in business and politics and they’ve created a web of organizations designed to persuade the public, other business folks, and politicians that running school districts like corporations is the way to go. They’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into think tanks, advocacy groups, and political campaigns to get their way. In Los Angeles, the billionaires have bankrolled the Coalition for School Reform, LA’s Promise, Parent Revolution, and the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education — all front groups designed to sell their version of “school reform.”

This year, the billionaires’ major vehicle to defeat Zimmer and take over LAUSD is the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and several of its phony front groups. One is called “Parent-Teacher Alliance.” To try to hoodwink voters, they invented a group with the same initials as the well-respected Parent Teacher Association, but they are very different organizations .

LA billionaire developer and influence-peddler Eli Broad had a plan to push half of LAUSD students into charter schools.  Ste
LA billionaire developer and influence-peddler Eli Broad had a plan to push half of LAUSD students into charter schools. Steve Zimmer fought the plan, so now Broad wants revenge.

Another one of CCSA’s phony front groups is called “LA Students for Change,” funded in large part by LA’s former Republican mayor Richard Riordan. Except that the group isn’t about students, but about billionaires and their political allies. The group was created by political consultant and public relations flak John Shallman, who recruited 18 high school students, paid them $500, and pretended it was a student-run organization but in fact it was invented and run by Shallman’s PR firm, according to LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. Under the name “LA Students for Change, “ the billionaires sent out what Lopez called “a nasty packet of cheap-shot political mailers attacking Zimmer” including one mailer that “falsely accused Zimmer of being the force behind L.A. Unified’s iPad debacle, among other sins.”

One long-time political observer said that he was appalled that “a billionaire school privatizer [like Riordan] would use unsuspecting students as a human shield in an attempt o personally destroy Zimmer simply because he won't toe the plutocrat's line.”

Texas billionaire John Arnold made a fortune at Enron before the company collapsed, leaving its employees and stockholders in
Texas billionaire John Arnold made a fortune at Enron before the company collapsed, leaving its employees and stockholders in the lurch. Then he made another fortune as a hedge fund manager. He’s taken over a million dollars out of his petty cash jar to support charter schools and defeat Steve Zimmer.

The contributors to the California Charter School Association and its web of front groups and political action committees reads like a who’s who of corporate influence-peddlers. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has contributed $5.3 million. Doris Fisher, whose family owns the San Francisco-based GAP — famous for its use of sweatshops to manufacture its clothing — has poured in $4.6 million. Speaking of poverty wages and abuse of workers, three heirs to Sam Walton’s Walmart fortune – Alice Walton, Jim Walton, and Carrie Penner — have thrown in $2.9 million. Developer Eli Broad, another member in good standing of the billionaire boys club, reached into his deep pockets and invested $1.4 million. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1.3 million. Former Apple CEO John Scully wasn’t far behind with $1.1 million; his wife Regina kicked in another $200,000. Ex-mayor Riordan tossed in $1 million. Former Enron executive and hedge fund (Centaurus Advisors) manager John Arnold and his wife Laura gave $1 million. Dozens of other plutocrats donated to the cause of corporate control of public schools. The total, since the last school board election, comes to at least $22 million. Most of it is from people who don’t live in Los Angeles.

Like hedge fund managers, the billionaires are hedging their bets. Although Melvoin has received the bulk of their donations, they’ve also donated to Allison Holdorff Polhill, a parent who served on the board of Palisades Charter High School and is another candidate for the District 4 seat, hoping that she will draw votes away from Zimmer.

There are limits to how much individuals can donate directly to political campaigns, but there are no limits to how much they can contribute to so-called “independent expenditure" groups. These outside billionaire-funded groups can pay for everything from phone-banks, to mailers, to television ads. Independent expenditures have far outstripped contributions made directly to individual candidates' campaigns. Times columnist Lopez described the billionaires’ campaign to defeat Zimmer, which includes sending mails filled with outrageous lies about Zimmer, as “gutter politics.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school system in the country with over 700,000 students. So gaining control of its board — and its budget — is a good “investment” for the billionaires who want to reshape education in this country.

That battle has turned into a remarkable David vs. Goliath contest. But let’s recall who won that Biblical battle. Goliath had the big weapons but the feisty David had the slingshot. That’s how Zimmer beat another hand-picked billionaire-backed candidate four years ago and he’s hoping to do it again this year.

Melvoin’s backers are outspending Zimmer’s supporters, including the teachers union, by a huge margin. One of Melvoin’s biggest fans is Lawrence Meyers, a one-time writer for Breitbart News, the ultra-right-wing and white supremacist website that is closely tied to Donald Trump.

What Zimmer has going for him is a grassroots campaign led by parents, former students, and local activists who are walking precincts, making phone calls, and hosting house meetings.

Zimmer was elected to the LAUSD in 2009 after 17 years as a teacher and counselor at Marshall High School. He was re-elected in 2013 despite the onslaught of billionaire bucks against him. He began his career in 1992 as part of Teach For America. When he taught English as a second language, he used an experiential approach that related to his students’ daily lives. He created Marshall’s Public Service Program to make public service intrinsic to the student experience. He founded Marshall’s Multilingual Teacher Career Academy, which was an early model for LAUSD’s Career Ladder Teacher Academy. To help address the concerns of at-risk youth, he founded the Comprehensive Student Support Center to provide health care services for students and their families. He helped create the Elysian Valley Community Services Center, a community owned-and-operated agency that provides after-school, recreational and enrichment programs, a library, and free Internet access.

Like most reasonable educators and education analysts, Zimmer has questioned the efficacy of charter schools as a panacea. Research shows that their track record is mixed at best. When billionaire developer Eli Broad unveiled a plan to put half of LAUSD students into charter schools within eight years, Zimmer led the opposition. Zimmer isn’t against all charter schools but he doesn’t want the board to rubber-stamp every charter proposal. He wants LAUSD to carefully review each charter proposal to see if its backers have a track record of success and inclusion. And he wants LAUSD to hold charters accountable. This kind of reasonable approach doesn’t sit well with the Billionaires Boys Club.

Zimmer has also questioned the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing as the primary tool for assessing student and teacher performance. Testing has its place but it can also become an excuse to avoid more useful and holistic ways to evaluate students and teachers — and to avoid the “teach to the test” obsession that hampers learning and creative teaching. Zimmer has called for — and helped negotiate the deal for — some portion of teacher evaluations to include test scores. But that’s not what the Billionaire Boys Club wants.

As a former LAUSD teacher, Zimmer respects teachers as professionals. He understands the jobs and frustrations of teaching. He wants LAUSD to create schools that are truly partnerships between teachers, parents, students and the district. He is often allied with United Teachers Los Angeles, but he is hardly UTLA’s lapdog. He has always been an independent voice and has disagreed with UTLA on some significant matters.

In fact, four years ago, Times’ columnist Lopez wrote that Zimmer “... has tried to bridge differences among the warring parties, winning supporters and making enemies on both sides in the process.”

But the billionaires don’t want a bridge-builder. They want a compliant rubber stamp, and that’s what they think they’ve found in Melvoin.

What, exactly, do these corporate moguls want and what has Zimmer done to make them so upset?

In terms of the big picture, what they want is to turn public schools into educational Walmarts run on the same model of corporate-style “efficiency.” They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” (LA already has more charter schools than any other district in the country). They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products — in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests.

Not surprisingly, the billionaires want their employees — teachers — to do what they’re told, without having much of a voice in how their workplace functions. That means destroying the teachers’ main line of defense against arbitrary management — their union. Rather than treat teachers like professionals, they view them as the hired help.

Much of the billionaires’ schools agenda is driven by ideology and hubris. They honestly believe, like the Divine Right of Kings, that their success in the corporate world entitles them to restructure our public schools. They think that making profits in corporate board rooms gives them credentials to make changes in classrooms. Some of their contributors don’t pretend to know anything about school matters, but when one of their influential pals phones them to ask for a donation, they take out their checkbook. This is called the philanthropic quid quo pro. Next month, they may ask their friend to return the favor on behalf of one of their favorite causes.

For some of these billionaires bankrollers, however, school “reform” is simply another version of old-fashioned corporate cronyism, sometimes called conflicts of interest. Some own companies that seek contracts with school districts, such as firms that produce textbooks or create tests used to evaluate students and teachers. Others are investors in, or serve on the boards of, private charter schools.

The Los Angeles Times has consistently drunk the Billionaires Boys Club’s Kool-Aid. The paper has been a huge advocate — in its news pages as well as its editorial pages — of standardized testing to evaluate teachers and students. It has also been a fierce knee-jerk opponent of United Teachers of Los Angeles.

Zimmer is endorsed by many LAUSD parents and community activists as well as Congressmembers Karen Bass, Judy Chu and Maxine Waters, Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer and Council President Herb Wesson. At the state level, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, State Controller Betty Yee, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon have all endorsed Zimmer. At the County level, he’s backed by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl along with former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

As a School Board member, Zimmer has been the leading advocate for vulnerable students. He authored the school board resolution in support of the Dream Act, federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students who do well in school and attend college. He helped create Student Recovery Day, a twice-yearly event that takes scores of district staff into students’ homes to support students who have dropped out. Hundreds of students have returned to class after being sought out and connected with the support services they need. He championed the Education Jobs Bill, legislation that added $10 billion for state education systems.

As a member of the Board, and his last two years as President, Zimmer led the school district through difficult times, weathering a recession, dealing with tragedies, and transitions in leadership. He used his skills to resolve challenges by working collaboratively.

Like most big school districts in California, LAUSD faces a budget deficit. California ranks among the lowest in per-student spending among the states. To make things worse, it has dramatically underfunded its own special education (IDEA) a major root cause of the deficit. Zimmer has been the strongest advocate on this issue for many years. He also has the most reasonable approach to addressing LAUSD’s pension and health care costs, another issue that almost every municipality and school district in California faces. The billionaires and their right-wing political allies want to destroy workplace and retirement protections for teachers and other workers rather than adequately fund public schools through higher taxes on the super-wealthy.

Here are some of Zimmer’s key accomplishments as a school board member:

  • He has been tireless in his commitment to make sure our schools get the money they need. After the recession, he advocated fiercely with the team in Washington that brought $300 million dollars to LAUSD through the Education Jobs bill. More recently he has made a strong case for increased state funding, through Proposition 30 and its extension, Proposition 55. His stewardship has paid off. LAUSD has been awarded the highest credit rating of AAA.
  • He has been a strong voice on the Board for ensuring that all students have access to high quality arts education. Since he’s been in office, arts funding has increased by $18 million dollars and the Arts Equity Index that he championed, now ensures resources where they are needed the most.
  • His commitment to making sure students eat healthy meals is unparalleled. His Good Food Purchasing resolution has been a model around the country for making sure student lunches have met the highest nutritional, environmental and animal welfare standards.
  • He has been a strong champion for making sure that public education focuses on serving every child enrolled in LAUSD. He has ensured the District stands together and supports the needs of students living in poverty, students facing trauma, special education students, undocumented students, LGBT students, English Learners, standard English learners and foster children. He was the founder of Student Recovery Day, which focuses the District’s attention on making personal contact with students to support them to return to school.
  • He has been a powerful voice in support of comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act. He also authored the resolution ensuring schools are safe zones where students and families faced immigration enforcement actions can find safety and seek assistance and information.
  • He has been incredibly responsive to parents’ demand for innovative programs. As a result of his leadership, parents can choose more than one magnet, and 48 new magnet schools have opened in the district. He has been steadfast in his support for growing and expanding new language programs, both in his District and across LAUSD.
  • He has worked hard to make sure his schools get the attention they deserve, responding to parent concerns at every level. He has supported parents in their efforts to beautify their schools, to create new school gardens, to improve maintenance and when funding is available, to bring about major improvements and modernizations.
  • He has respected parents’ desire to choose independent charters. Since he’s been in office, the Board has authorized over 200 charters, more than any other District in the country, and the District has become the most effective charter authorizer. LA Unified has some of the most successful charters as measured by student achievement and graduation rates. That said, he is concerned about the high levels of saturation of charter schools in LA Unified, which is destabilizing neighborhood school communities, while other neighboring districts, are not being targeted for independent charter expansion. Steve also believes that as public schools, charters have to serve every child including children w/ disabilities, behavioral issues and other needs. He also has held charter schools accountable for transparency in budgeting, governance and finance.

Zimmer has received numerous awards for his work with children and families, including the LA’s Commission of Children, Youth and their Families “Angel Over Los Angeles” award, El Centro Del Pueblo’s “Carino” award and the LACER Foundation’s “Jackie Goldberg Public Service Award.”

Zimmer was initially shocked by the corporate titans’ decision to put a bulls eye on his back. But he and his many supporters have waged a feisty grassroots campaign. If he wins on Tuesday, it will be a major blow to the Billionaires Boys Club, and a victory for real bottom-up grassroots educational reform.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College

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