Steve Zimmer is a man without a country. Parents at school board meetings wear T-shirts that read, "SHAME ON YOU, MR. ZIMMER." Union officials make wisecracks when he speaks. Preventing the Westside school board member's re-election to the powerful Los Angeles Unified School Board in March is one of the top priorities for a group of well-funded activists, often dubbed reformers, who want additional charter schools and tougher teacher evaluations in which the students' achievements — i.e., test scores — are taken into account.
"This is a seat that, on the natural, should be a reform seat," says Parent Revolution founder Ben Austin, a Westsider in the reform camp who nearly ran for it in 2009. "Parents in this district are desperate for transformative change in our schools."
Austin and others searched far and wide for the perfect candidate to represent the city's most highly educated households, and they think they've found her.
Her name is Kate Anderson, a 40-year-old mother of twins, a former UCLA student-body president, former Congressional staffer to Henry Waxman and Jane Harman, and former corporate lawyer for heavyweight firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.
She's also perfect as a challenger to a sitting politician for another reason — she's no neophyte, having run for the Assembly in 2010. She lost the Democratic primary to current Assemblywoman Betsy Butler but impressed veteran politicos by raising nearly $400,000 her first time out the gate. Anderson sits on the board of the Mar Vista Community Council, and serves as Los Angeles director for Children Now, an influential advocacy group focused on early childhood education and child health.
"She has intellect, political experience and the perspective of being mom," Austin says. "But at end of the day, it takes courage to stand up for kids. There are very powerful forces that push very hard."
Any notion that Anderson might try to play it safe is quickly put to rest. "I'm really frustrated by the lack of a teacher evaluation system, by the failure of the school district to help teachers get better," Anderson says. "We need a system that celebrates great teachers and, when appropriate, helps teachers gracefully exit from the system."
Talk like that is a surefire way to pick a fight with the vast teachers union, UTLA, which has the means to spend millions on a single school board race that few Angelenos even know is happening.
"Parents are really frustrated with positions that UTLA has taken," Anderson says. "I'm frustrated with their refusal to sign on to Race to the Top," a $40 million grant from the Obama administration, which comes with strings — districts who get the money must start using test scores to evaluate teachers. Deasy has created a $45.7 million plan for Obama's $40 million. It provides 26,500 struggling students with individual support — and retrains their sometimes-mediocre teachers. The goal: Avert massive dropouts by putting at-risk kids on 15 potential career paths.
But UTLA President Warren Fletcher killed the grant, refusing to co-sign on "fiscal" grounds even after Deasy said he'd raise the extra $5.7 million from donors.
Anderson quickly gathered 862 signatures to qualify for the ballot and is already wading into thorny issues that have divided the Los Angeles Board of Education down the middle, and prompted tough-minded board member Yolie Flores to quit after just four years. Flores now fights to change the schools from the outside.
In stark contrast to the backslapping, kumbaya-singing Los Angeles City Council — whose 15 members vote unanimously 99 percent of the time and almost never hold a hot debate in public view — the LAUSD school board is a veritable hyena's cage.
Board members yell, roll their eyes and make poorly veiled accusations about one another. Two members have called the body dysfunctional. Yet the seven take their work seriously. The acrimony is as much a function of the tough decisions they're forced into as it is the forces pushing them.
The board has broken into two camps. There is the "reform" camp, including President Monica Garcia, fiscally tough deputy city attorney Tamar Galatzan and politically ambitious Nury Martinez, who is leaving to run for City Council.
The reformers support Superintendent John Deasy, the fast-talking, no-nonsense New Englander responsible for many changes in the district.
The other camp stands largely opposed to Deasy, and its members were elected with financing from UTLA. They include the enigmatic Richard Vladovic, the prickly Marguerite LaMotte, and Bennett Kayser, who was narrowly elected last year suffering from Parkinson's, and whose aides are said to have a cold relationship with Superintendent Deasy.
Zimmer is often the swing vote. "It's a very, very high-pressure situation," he says. "There's a lot of guns at your head all the time." At meetings he can be seen head in his hands, his face a portrait of suffering.
"He agonizes over public education," says former board member David Tokofsky.
Says Zimmer, "I wish that there was more of a willingness on all sides of the equation to hunker down and figure things out."
A Teach for America alum, Zimmer ran for the school board in 2009 as a "bridge-building candidate," with support from both UTLA and charter schools like Camino Nuevo and the Youth Policy Institute.
Zimmer set off controversy during the divisive board vote on Public School Choice, an idea to allow charter operators to take over long-failing schools controlled by LAUSD. Zimmer made a long speech about how troubled he was by the idea — then voted for it, enraging UTLA.
He has supported Deasy on a number of close votes but has made solid enemies in the reform camp. Recently, he put forward two proposals: one to reject a measurement called "Academic Growth Over Time," which is used to grade teachers by looking at a student's progress in test scores over multiple years; then he called for a temporary moratorium on new charter schools — but backed off after intense criticism.
Everyone from interest groups to fellow board members was wondering: Just what the hell was Zimmer doing?
"It was a solution looking for a problem," says Sierra Jenkins of the California Charter Schools Association.
On Monday Zimmer lost a motion, 4-2, to ask charter operators to voluntarily stop opening charters. (The charter association had responded with "parent alert" radio ads blasting Zimmer as anti-reform.)
"When he first introduced his resolution, he showed his true intention, which was to limit choices for parents," Jenkins says.
"My real goal is to be strategic and intentional about further charter growth, not necessarily to limit it," Zimmer insists.
There are more than 100,000 kids in charter schools here, and it's a poorly kept secret that scores of L.A. principals and neighborhoods want to shift to charters.
So Zimmer's moves were seen by some as a last-ditch attempt to get back into UTLA's good graces, which he vigorously denies.
"No political consultant would be happy with the way I've tried to address these issues at all," he says with a laugh.
But to union leaders like Fletcher, Zimmer is, at best, an unreliable wild card. Of course, once he hears from Anderson, who readily agrees she has "strong positions," Fletcher's decision could get easier.
"Having to run this race [means] having to take positions that may make some people angry," says Anderson. "I realize that this may be the last office I ever run for."