Zimmer Uses Well-worn Playbook With Division and Scapegoating

By Katie Braude

Speak UP strongly opposes the policies of President Donald Trump and his vision of school choice, which involves funneling public money to unaccountable and inequitable private schools through vouchers.

Many Speak UP members marched on Washington, Los Angeles and the Bay Area last month wearing pink hats and waving Speak UP signs. And we recently called on LAUSD School Board President Steve Zimmer to follow our lead in standing with civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) because we have serious questions about Trump’s legitimacy – a step Zimmer still has not taken.

However, our opposition to Trump goes far beyond issues, ideology or even questions of legitimacy. It is about Trump’s penchant for pitting groups of people against each other for his own political gain. It is about scapegoating, which has led to violence against targeted minority groups.

Sadly, we see Trump-like scapegoating, the same type of distortions and divisive rhetoric being employed by Zimmer and his adult special interest campaign donors against Los Angeles children who attend charter schools.

Speak UP members have kids at all kinds of schools, but the district schools represented by our members far outnumber the autonomous charters. And regardless of the type of schools our kids attend -- traditional, magnet, charter or something else – we stand together in asking that all parents and kids be treated with respect. 

We are disgusted when Trump scapegoats Mexico for stealing our jobs and Muslim immigrants for threatening our security. We find it equally untenable when Zimmer and UTLA single out charter children for stealing resources from LAUSD and threatening the stability of district schools.

Neither Trump’s nor Zimmer’s attacks are rooted in facts but are instead distortions of reality designed to deflect attention from the true source of failure and project blame on a demonized “other.” And just as Trump’s rhetoric has inspired a wave of bullying against that “other,” so has Zimmer’s rhetoric led to harassment and bullying of little kids as they walk to school and behind the school doors themselves.

Here are just a few examples of Zimmer’s inflammatory anti-charter rhetoric:

·            “Any effort at any large-scale expansion of charters schools within L.A. Unified is a signal that whoever is behind that expansion is purposely and intentionally trying to bring about the end of this district.”

·         “It’s not about choice. It’s not about innovation. It’s about a very different agenda of bringing down the school district, an agenda to dramatically change what is public education.”

·           “Charter schools are inherently a ‘some kids,’ model.”

·            Funding “vouchers and charter schools has caused real and significant injury to the most vulnerable children."

·            Kids who attend charters cause “collateral damage” in the form of fewer resources for the district kids who do not.   

Zimmer also fanned the flames of a so-called "culture war" by accusing families who exercise school choice of being motivated by a desire to segregate. “The parents buying up the houses, who have more resources, have a lot of fear about public schools…and when you give them the opportunity to really engage and create integration and diversity in their neighborhood public schools, they don’t want to.” Instead, he said, they exercise choice to “be with another demographic of kids.” 

His words ignore the fact that some charters in his district are considered national models of socioeconomic integration and inclusion for kids with special needs. And the percentage of white students attending independent charters in BD4 (34 percent) is nearly identical to the percentage of white students in BD4 as a whole (33 percent).  

Scapegoating, which is seeing a resurgence internationally, happens when someone displaces “their own weaknesses, frailties, limitations, disappointments, confusions, and failures onto a substitute victim,” writes Jason Blakely in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

Zimmer’s rhetoric deflects attention from LAUSD’s gross fiscal mismanagement, which includes increasing administrative staff by 22 percent as enrollment declined, paying $200 million in sex abuse settlements because the district ignored warnings of abuse by its employees, and racking up a $13.6 billion unfunded pension and benefits liability.

The results of this anti-charter rhetoric are impossible to dispute. Violence and bullying have been well documented:

·              Kindergarten kids in Zimmer’s district had to confront protestors telling them they were unwanted and should go elsewhere as they tried to get to class on their very first day of school.

·           An anti-charter activist threw a lit cigarette into the car of a charter school family, lighting a fire beneath a small child. Charter teachers have had their cars deliberately rammed.

·              Students from a school where Community Preparatory Academy was co-locating wrote graffiti in the bathrooms: “F— CPA.” On the first day of school, the principal of the district school said, “We don’t like charters. We don’t want you on our campus.” And the district-school kids frequently bullied the charter students. 

Zimmer’s political scapegoating tactics are not new. They come from a long lineage of mostly right-wing attempts to divide the electorate and turn the majority against an “out” group, which is then blamed for society’s problems. The "other" has changed throughout American politics: black, Latino, Chinese, undocumented, disabled, gay, Muslim, welfare recipient, feminist, hippie, Jew, communist, reporter.

We are not comparing the struggles of charter school families to these other disenfranchised groups. That would be offensive and inaccurate. But we are comparing the tactics and the reasons they often work: because the demonized “other” has fewer voters than everyone else.

Just as charter parents are a fraction of Speak UP’s membership base, the families in Los Angeles who attend charter schools are a minority of the electorate. Only 19 percent of students in BD4 attend autonomous charter schools, compared to the 58 percent who attend traditional district schools, according to CCSA.

We call on Steve Zimmer and all candidates for LAUSD School Board to reject these Trump-like campaign tactics – to stop with the distortions and lies. All parents – regardless of the type of schools their kids attend – are outraged by the violence this rhetoric has inspired.

Zimmer once said, “candidates make decisions about the parameters that they will allow and associate with their campaign.” We agree.

Speak UP only supports non-profit schools that are equitable, accountable and that serve kids well. Not all charter schools put kids first, and when they don’t, we believe they should be shut down. That’s why we called last week for Celerity to be held accountable for a complex governance structure and financial practices that lack transparency and put its kids at risk.

But Zimmer needs to stop pitting parents against each other and blaming charter schools for causing all of LAUSD’s financial problems. And stop spreading lies claiming that charter schools are for-profit “privatizers.” Charter schools are public schools, and there are precisely zero for-profit schools authorized by LAUSD. Stop equating charter schools with private school vouchers and lumping them in with the Trump agenda. Charter schools were created by Democrats and strongly supported by former presidents Obama and Clinton.

Speak UP is in a unique position to call Zimmer out for these tactics because our parent members come from all types of schools and cannot be neatly divided along the same lines as the adult special interest groups that fund LAUSD school board campaigns. Speak UP has many members with kids at district schools who want the option to send their kids to charter schools for middle and high school, and vice versa. 

Most parents who exercise public school choice are agnostic toward the governance model. They look at neighborhood schools, magnets, charters, language immersion schools, pilots – any option that provides the right fit for their kids. We have members with one child at a neighborhood school and another at a charter school because their kids each have different educational needs.

The common thread that unites Speak UP parents is that all are doing the best they can to get an excellent education for their kids. So we call on Zimmer and his donors to stop picking on our kids, and instead focus on ways to improve LAUSD schools to attract families back.

Speak UP members from district schools stand together with public charter parents to draw this line in the sand. Parents will no longer be referred to as "privatizers." They will no longer be blamed for the district's impending bankruptcy because they are choosing what they need for their children. And they will no longer be pitted against each other for the narrow political gain of any politician. 

We stand united against this divisive rhetoric and in favor of a kids-first agenda. If any candidate for school board in BD4 pits parents against parents -- regardless of ideology and regardless of whether or not we have endorsed them -- we will organize, and we will expose those Trump-like tactics for what they are, and how they harm our children. 

We can't elect a new president right now. But we can and must elect a leader of our schools who shares our values and respects our differences. The parents of BD4 expect nothing less. We hold our elected representatives to basic standards of human decency. Unlike the current leader of our nation, we expect the next leader of our schools be a role model for our kids.

-- Katie Braude is the co-founder and Executive Director of Speak UP.