Howard Fuller Has Hope for the Next Generation of Education Reformers

The activist talks school choice and rethinking the entire education system

An early and vocal charter school advocate, Howard Fuller served as the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991-1995. Most recently, he was a professor of education at Marquette University, a position from which he retired in June. Now the civil rights leader and education reform advocate is isolating during the covid-19 pandemic and figuring out his next step. He chatted with Philanthropy about how school choice empowers minorities, the problem of polarization, and why it’s time to rethink the entire education system. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Charter schools have come a long way since the first one opened in 1992. Is support for these schools growing, or do they still have hurdles to overcome? 

I think both. Having been someone who was there when they first started, I remember that our first national meeting had about 35 people. And the last one I was in had 4,000. Clearly there’s been growth in charter schools. But I think in part because of some of the successes, charter schools are facing increasing opposition. 

I’m very, very concerned about the political positioning of charter schools. Before the pandemic hit, Steve Perry and I co-chaired and created an organization called the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, and we were demonstrating at the site of the Democratic Party debates because in July 2019 Bernie Sanders had come out with a full-throated opposition of charter schools. And then Elizabeth Warren had followed him. 

We interrupted a speech by Warren at Clark University, and it resulted in a six-minute video where she lied about where she sent one of her children to school. [Starting in fifth grade, Warren’s son attended a private school.] When you read her education platform, it was vicious in terms of its denunciation of charter schools. When the pandemic hit, we could no longer demonstrate, but we did send an open letter to Joe Biden because his support for charter schools has been tepid at best.

Charter schools are clearly serving a need. They’re an issue of self-determination for many black and brown families who need a better option for their children. You have something that is working for many families. And this pandemic showed it, too, because the fact was many charter schools were nimble enough to make the changes that they needed to serve families, while some districts were giving no education at all to children. It’s just difficult to watch, but I’m confident that this generation of people who support charter schools is going to continue to fight to make sure charter schools remain an option for the families that need them. 

Charter school opponents sometimes argue that there’s something racist about how and why charter schools operate. How do you respond to that?

It’s absurd. It’s always interesting how supporters of a traditional systems have amnesia. There were no charter schools in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, and they like to quote Brown. The discrimination and the segregation, all of those issues were issues for the traditional system. 

What happens is, over all of these years, so many systems have failed to educate poor black and brown students. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, called charters the “slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” It’s just ridiculous. It shows the limits they will go to in order to prevent black and brown families from having any option other than the ones that they control. When I hear that argument, it’s clearly coming from someone who’s trying to protect their power, and using whatever arguments they think might work.

What do else do you think the pandemic has revealed about our public education system?

In the beginning, people were saying the pandemic has shed light on disparities. My argument is: Where the hell have you all been? The light has been bright. It’s just that there’s no political will to do anything about it. I’m in the group that’s waiting to see the radical change that’s going to take place on the other side. I haven’t bought into: “This is one of these moments you’re going to see all these great things happen.” Maybe. We’ll see. When people start talking about gaps, I’m saying these gaps have always existed. The real question is to what degree are they going to be mitigated on the other side of this.

Has education reform become more politicized over the past few decades? 

I think it’s gotten worse. When we first started this, there was more bipartisanship. The problem with bipartisanship at this moment is if you talk to any Democrat about bipartisanship, they’ll laugh at you. People are saying to be bipartisan means you support Donald Trump. And vice versa. 

Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman wrote this book, That Used to Be Us. They were talking about the five pillars that make America great. The reason they said you could take care of infrastructure, have strong education, have an immigration system that understood you want both great minds and people who want to come here for improvement for their families—you could do all of this because America used to have a situation where people got up every day and before they were Republicans or Democrats, they were Americans. That grand bargain no longer exists in the broader political framework of this country. 

What, if anything, makes you optimistic?

I support public education, but I have issues with the delivery systems. Some of the traditional systems don’t well serve kids who need the education. Since I don’t think these delivery systems were created by God, you can actually change them. What’s really interesting is: The model of traditional education is pretty much the Prussian model that we started with. Variations off that model have been limited by the power of the organized interests who want to sustain their power.

Here’s an opportunity not just to talk about virtual learning but to go back and examine the whole framework for how we educate kids. What kind of course structure should you have for high school students?

It isn’t just about whether or not you are on a Chromebook, but what is it that guides our decisions about what our children need to be considered educated? Whether or not the level of systemic change that is needed is going to occur, I’m not optimistic about that. But again, maybe I’ll be proven wrong. 

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