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Q&A: Why Public Schools Need a Bailout

Veteran teacher, counselor, advocate, and community activist Steve Zimmer (PDF) has called Los Angeles home since he arrived in 1992 as a neophyte Teach For America teacher. Eighteen years later, 40 year-old Zimmer is completing his first year as an elected school board member for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the United States. Serving LAUSD’s 680,000 racially, ethnically, and economically diverse students at a time when the Obama administration is raising performance expectations—while more than $1.5 billion’s been cut from the district budget and more than 6,000 positions eliminated—is no easy task. We talked with him about why he still believes in public education despite all the challenges.

GOOD: What kind of grade would you give the Obama Administration and Secretary Duncan on education?

STEVE ZIMMER: I’d give them an A on focusing on the lowest performing schools, but I’d give them a C on approach. I think some inflexibility and overreliance on competition has really hampered their efforts. They’re propelled by the notion that there needs to be a school-based drastic turnaround rather than a community-based turnaround. With the schools that need the most support and collaboration, there seems to be a focus on being punitive and I think that’s flawed.

G: Is the solution to run public education like a corporation?

SZ: The reforms I think will actually work aren’t private sector reforms. When we talk about social capital and community capital and harnessing what could be very effective solutions that are right in the communities where children live—I don’t think those are business models. Those are expanding the scope of what a school does and transforming the definition of what a school is, and from that, you transform who has power in schools.

I’m not opposed to private sector influence, but whether it’s private sector or what I call community sector, human sector or labor sector, whatever it is, here’s my problem with what’s happening right now—all of those things can be tried once we have a base level of funding that stabilizes our schools.

G: Some say there’s enough money but districts waste it.

SZ: I’m not talking about throwing money at a problem. I’m talking about stabilizing situations so that you can address the problems. There’s no debate about funding the war, no debate about funding the Wall Street and housing bailouts, but a tiny fraction of either of those funds would provide a baseline stabilization of our schools.

G: Thirty schools in Detroit closed this year and 275,000 education jobs are projected to be lost. How do we fix these cuts?

SZ: The assumption is that one of the things that your taxes fully fund is public schools. When you have a recession, that’s when you need more resources in schools, not less.

G: What do you say to people who want more police at schools and zero tolerance policies where we expel kids?

SZ: I actually think school police, and I’m being very specific, school police have a potentially powerful role to play. School police are like an intersection between social work and law enforcement, and I’ve had phenomenally positive experiences with that when it works. We’re not going to arrest and expel our way out of the social problems that are a) caused by poverty and b) accentuated by concentrations of poverty.

Until we own the fact that the achievement gap is not some accident—that those who are in power and those who have had access to privilege and all the things that go along with it directly benefit from there being an achievement gap—until we own it, it’s never going to go away. Since the achievement gap is intentional, the efforts to eradicate it need to be just as intentional.

G: With all the problems facing public education, and the challenge of being a board member in such a large district, how do you stay positive?

SZ: Last Sunday I spent my afternoon at school fairs and my first family fair was at Selma Elementary, right in the heart of Hollywood. It serves homeless families and has a high concentration of poverty. It’s one of the most urban-feeling schools in the city. There’s no grass. It’s surrounded by buildings, but their fair was really great—tons of families and they’d made their own food and their own games, and it was clear that everything had been made by the teachers and parents.

Then I went from Selma to Roscomere, a school in Bel Air. They had huge trailers with 64-inch screens. They brought in one of those rock-climbing things. They spent $250,000 just on the games for their fair.

One of the blessings and challenges of having the district I have is you really see the disparity. The leaders of this school district have to balance the needs of a Roscomere and a Selma. The teachers in both places still are paid, and they work on the same contract and there’s still the same classroom ratio. But there are inequities because of the money Roscomere is able to raise.

It’s the same school system. It’s public education. Somehow, someway, it connects people who wouldn’t be connected otherwise. We just have to figure the rest of it out.

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