Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dear fellow, locally-politically engaged compatriot:

I’m writing to you because we’ve both worked alongside Kate Anderson these past few years on local political issues and I see you’ve visibly endorsed her, in many cases with a yard sign. I’m writing to you because I feel that supporting her in this school board election against Steve Zimmer is a mistake. I hope you will hear me out. This is a mostly personal argument and plea; but the personal is always political and this decision matters as deeply as anything can. I am heartsick to witness the slow-motion undermining of Steve Zimmer’s incumbency.

As you may know, I come to the public school educational game from private school. My two girls (now ages 12 and 15) attended the well-regarded private lab school at UCLA alongside some stratospherically rich and famous folks. It was an education indeed. For middle school they rolled back down the hill to Palms Middle School, a really interesting educational setup with a high proportion of relatively scholastically advanced kids learning alongside kids not thus-identified. Our experience in this school has been overwhelmingly positive for its superior academics and true, deep opportunity for integration of socioeconomic status, class, color, nationality, learning skills, social skills – this public school in the heart of our community educates a mixture of children so diverse that I never really thought it could be possible to address such disparate needs adequately. It is an existential breath of fresh air to interact with teachers and administrators steeped in professionalism and competence.

At the same time the deprivation in our academic (and social) system is breath-taking. Comprehending the why, how and ramifications of all this provides its own well-spring of educational learning. At some point I was so upset with the Los Angeles Unified School District I even thought of running for the school board myself. I really know next to nothing about the complicated nexus of academics and politics, but it seemed that there was a need for some practical eyewitness experience.

The relevant question in addressing this step was: who is our school board member; the system may be broken but is our explicit contribution to it as well? And the answer is: no. It is not only “no”, but it turns out the man representing us, Steve Zimmer, is uncommonly good at this thankless job of LAUSD school board member (salary: +/- 47K, district, ~ 500 square miles). He is extremely thoughtful and knowledgeable, well-versed in a vast ocean of issues and quite frankly a deep, independent thinker. One with whom I might not even agree on some of the vast panoply of hot issues. But one I can trust to have considered very carefully an issue from all sides and developed a morally-anchored, reasoned opinion. Committing to binary yeah-nay decisions on such complex issues – never mind how many there are – is not easy. It is in fact monumentally difficult to choose yes or no about a complicated question come the end of the day. Steve Zimmer is a principled thinker and he comes to decisions through a circuitous route that includes priorities that are aligned properly: with kids – ALL kids, independent of color, class, even educational achievement. He is weighing a multitude of complex, competing interests toward an end of maximizing fairness and educational excellence for the whole community. This is huge.

And I very much fear it is not the case for his opponent. She is on record and takes money from big, deep-pocketed individuals and organizations, supporting a fractious system that would divide the education of our children into “separate but equal” camps. We have done that experiment, it did not and does not work and it was even ruled illegal, a long time ago now. Charter schools and providing “choice” to parents turn out to be just another way – in practice at least – to segregate and sequester resources for one sector of society at the expense of the rest. This is no way to engage in building and sustaining community, it is divisive and simply put: unfair. It is a repudiation, to my mind, of what makes our country great: the open and available opportunity for all. Without a good, publicly-supported education, young people stand no chance of securing a satisfying place for themselves in the social hierarchy. Closing the doors on certain classes of society to schools where the most resources are husbanded, does exactly that: it dooms those on the outside to inferior opportunities.

Please make no mistake that this is exactly and precisely what the charter schools are doing in reality. They are excluding the hard-to-educate, the needy, the resource-intensive pupils in ghettos of inferior quality. Conversely, the white-lining of certain schools where only a certain slice of society is allowed to matriculate, is quite simply hiding all the cookies in a drawer to which you control access, countenancing only your own. That is the narrow solution proposed by Kate Anderson and the lock-step corporate bloc that supports her.

And it is unnecessary. It is my personal experience at least, that it is possible to educate huge swathes of amazingly disparate people excellently. They do it at Palms MS. It’s the teachers, quite frankly, though I personally define the term “teachers” to include the entire community of adults in my children’s school. They all work together as a team toward educating their charges, my children and I wish yours: librarians, vice-principals, bathroom cleaners. I couldn’t learn without all these separate needs attended to and neither can your children: they are all ‘teachers’ in a learning community as far as I am concerned.

So I am writing to you personally, because it has not been my impression, working alongside of you in various neighborhood issues, that you are really in the business of excluding some. So your support for Kate Anderson seems misplaced for the values it was my impression you held. We currently have a person working tremendously hard to steer a fair line through a very complicated field of competing interests. The solutions proposed by Ms Anderson are not fair, are not reasoned, are not democratic. They are not supportable. Why would you therefore support her?

Thanks for hearing me out. I am of course more than willing to speak with you about this; I really, really hope you will reconsider your endorsement. I do not think it does you credit but in fairness, I think you may be insufficiently familiar with the reality of the code being bantered about regarding all of this. My own experience with children in public schools has opened my eyes to some fairly ugly truths about what is happening silently, in practice. It may not be what any of us would subscribe to knowingly, but that is the point: reality happens regardless of the words ascribed to it. Roses smell the same no matter what they are named. Please do not throw your weight behind a faction that intends to exclude anyone from their fair share of public education resources.

Please note as well that we happen to live on an LAUSD district dividing line. Palms MS happens to be outside of Steve Zimmer’s district; my older child’s local school west of the 405, Venice High School, is in his district. We are new to this school and my personal knowledge of it is more limited. It is clear though that Steve Zimmer has thrown his weight and support behind this school and is very, very well-liked by parents there; it is equally clear that he offers this sort of support indiscriminately – his support and weight goes to students, all over. While I understand he has “helped out” Venice High School, it is not my impression that he has done so in a way that means any other High School has not been “helped out”. And that is (my definition of) the meaning of democracy… for the people; all the people.

In short, his incumbency is not broken: this school board member is not the problem. Electing Kate Anderson would – to coin words she uses in a slightly different context – be a ‘solution in search of a problem’. Yet … Steve Zimmer is not a problem. He happens to have done a fine job last term.