The Antidote to Current Insanity: Rebut Every Lie

By Lindsay Sturman

In the past few days, Steve Zimmer’s backers sent out false and deceptive mailers attacking City Charter Schools. The mailers and a subsequent fundraising email make it clear that board president Zimmer is deeply against charter schools, and City in particular. 

Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay last weekend on the current political madness in our nation — explaining how democracy cannot survive when everything is a lie. His antidote: “Rebut every lie.” So here goes:

The mailers attack Nick Melvoin, a candidate for LAUSD board district 4, and call City a “network of controversial charter schools.” City is two schools: City Language Immersion Charter — one of LA’s most diverse, beloved and inspiring public elementary schools, and City School, one of the highest-performing middle schools in Los Angeles. City also used to have a high school until it was forced to shut its doors last fall.

Melvoin served as a volunteer board member of City but stepped down after he announced his candidacy — many months before the wrenching decision to close City High. The one person who could have altered the fate of City High was Zimmer himself. As a board member, he has say over Prop 39 offers in his district, and City was left without a viable location in its second year, which forced it to close a few months later.

To turn this on a volunteer who wasn’t even on the board at the time, to use kids in an overtly political way, and to imply that City and the parents who started City are somehow tools of Betsy DeVos and “out of state billionaires” who want to “divert money away from public school towards their own profit-making charter schools” — this is the bizarro world of fake facts. The fact is there are no for-profit charters in LAUSD. In its Truth-Squadding column presenting fact/fiction reviews of mailers, the Los Angeles Times rated these statements as “Verdict: Misleading.”

Families have started progressive, diverse, parent-initiated charter schools like City’s so every kid can go to a great public school, which has somehow been labeled “anti-public education.” Parents and educators shared a common vision of a diverse school where kids feel nurtured and safe, teachers collaborate and families feel part of a community. Although LAUSD does spectacularly well in many schools, it is failing to provide that to every child in every school.

So when a group of parents banded together to hold garage sales and scrub toilets and paint classrooms all night to create public schools that have all the qualities the district and the array of anti-charter forces out there say they value — collaborative, diverse, student-centered schools—and then they savage us for doing it — something is deeply wrong.

It’s not like parents set out to start charter schools across Los Angeles. We tried to work with the district. We tried to engage them and talk to them. We even tried to start a school with the district, offering to do all the work to replicate Open Magnet Charter, an affiliated, unionized district school. With LAUSD’s $6 billion budget, you know what they said? “We don’t have the capacity to do that.” So on a shoestring budget and completely by the seat of our pants, we did it ourselves.  

Now we are told we are the problem. How are parents stopping the district from succeeding? I’m pretty sure it’s the district stopping the district, and when LAUSD creates great programs, all parents cheer loudly — because to parents, it is not a zero sum game. For our schools to succeed, we do not need or want the district to fail. We want everyone to succeed.

In public forums, Zimmer says he supports charter schools, but in a fundraising email he sent out last week, he made it clear he is running on an anti-charter platform, saying if charter candidates win, “there will be an anti-teacher, anti-collaboration and pro charter majority on the Board.” It is a common line of attack that charters are “anti-collaboration” — except City’s schools use a collaborative model.

I am not a politician or a billionaire. What I am is a mom. And there is one thing about moms and dads— no matter our background, religion, orientation, language, income, ethnicity — we put kids first. We have no secret agenda, no ulterior motive, no corporate agenda (can we all just get real?) We don’t care if it’s charter, magnet or district — we don’t care about the politics. We just want great schools for every kid and every community.

We have seen an anti-charter school board faction trip up charter schools for all of board president Zimmer’s tenure — whether through Prop 39 bait and switches or Munchausen-by-Politics — where a community somehow gets riled up, so someone can swoop in to solve the problem — usually by kicking a charter school to the curb. This may be funny to those who want to see charter schools fail, but it’s not very funny to the parents who started these schools so our kids could learn in a small, nurturing environment that many of them need to succeed.

If recent protests and marches have taught us one thing, it’s that we need to start speaking out. We need to stand up to the lies. 

If none of these mailers or his fundraising email reflects Zimmer’s true views, parents would welcome a clarification. But until Zimmer denounces the lies being spread on his behalf, we have to assume he agrees with them. To quote Zimmer himself, anything less than a clear directive against these dirty campaign tactics is “tacit acceptance of their use.”

There is a legitimate debate over how to make every school in Los Angeles exceptional, diverse and inspiring — and both sides have legitimate points. But we can’t get to solutions if one side is flooding the discussion with lies and distortions. We are living through a dark and terrible time — and honest progressives can’t afford this kind of death spiral of alternative facts. Education is too important — our communities and our kids are too important. There is too much at stake to continue living this lie. Charters are not the enemy. Parents are not the enemy. Denial is.

— Lindsay Sturman is a Los Angeles mom who put in thousands of hours on an entirely volunteer basis to create charter schools in Los Angeles, including Larchmont Charter, City School, CLIC and Valley Charter Schools.