By Larry Miller
In No Struggle No Progress Howard Fuller constructs an argument for his version of “education reform” and a defense of his participation in that movement. The following is a critique of that argument.
Howard Fuller chooses to open his autobiography boasting his friendship with President George W. Bush.
What does Fuller say? “I connected with the dude…. I found him quite likable.” This led to Fuller assisting Bush’s election by joining his education speech-writing and policy advisory team; a group that included fellows from right-wing think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the Hudson Institute.
This is the same George Bush who took us into the illegal Iraq war at a cost of $2 trillion, leaving thousands of Iraqis and poor and working-class American GIs – disproportionately African-American –wounded or dead. This is the same George Bush who founded his presidency on policies to benefit the 1%, abandoning the middle class and poor and working-class communities and plunging us into the worst recession since the 1930’s.
Fuller contrasts his friendship with Bush with his once-militant background, to explain why he’s difficult to categorize and had to tell his own story. But the anecdote tells more than Fuller intended. All change-makers understand the need for unusual allies. But we also understand the need to call out the sources of oppression. Silence in the face of George Bush’s role in the suffering in the Black community is at best a failure, at worst complicity.
In No Struggle No Progress Fuller argues that his present education work is a logical progression from his early organizing for Black political power. In reality the book reveals a drastic rupture with his past that has resulted in a free-market approach to K12 education and alliances with the very right-wing power-brokers who are leading the charge to set back low-income communities of color.
Most of the first half of the book is dedicated to describing his early organizing in defense of Black communities in Ohio, North Carolina and other southeastern states, his key role in founding Malcolm X Liberation University and organizing with the important African liberation support movement opposing colonialism and connecting African struggles to Black liberation in the U.S.
Following extreme sectarian infighting within the left groups that he had participated in, Fuller made a decision to end his work in North Carolina and return to Milwaukee. He goes on to describe his role as a leader in the 1981 movement in Milwaukee against the police murder of Ernest Lacy.
After that campaign Fuller was recruited to high-level government positions, first at the state level where he became Secretary of the Department of Employment Relations for the State of Wisconsin and later for Milwaukee County as head of the Health and Human Services Department.
From there Fuller moved to work directly with K-12 education. He took part in the effort to create a separate school district, mostly serving Milwaukee’s Black community, in response to the poor outcomes by Black students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Lacking the support it needed in the state legislature, the initiative lost any momentum and the campaign ended in 1988. Fuller then joined the effort to create an “experiment” with vouchers. In 1990 Wisconsin passed a law allowing for about 300 voucher seats for low-income students, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
That same year the Milwaukee School Board hired Fuller as its superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. The Wisconsin state legislature passed a special law exempting Fuller from the requirement that he have three years of pre-collegiate teaching experience before he could be confirmed to the post because he had never been a classroom teacher or K12 school administrator.
He wasted no time making changes to Milwaukee Public Schools. He describes his efforts as MPS superintendent saying he opened “the door to innovative and radical educational practices.” He instituted two central reforms; one being “school to work” and the other decentralization. While the “school to work” effort brought forth some new ways to approach teaching and learning, success in that area was undermined by the way the in which decentralization was carried out.
Decentralization was intended to send more money directly to schools under the control of principals. While some decentralization was necessary, the Fuller administration took it to the extreme, in line with a free-market philosophy for K-12 schooling. For example, curriculum was also decentralized. This resulted in more than 25 different reading programs being implemented in elementary schools across the district. At the same time the system of councils addressing important work like reading and literacy began to be eliminated. The Multicultural Curriculum Council, the Early Childhood Council, the Bilingual Council, the Reading Council, the Humanities Council and others ended up being defunded as part of the decentralization moves.
It was the councils, through a collaboration of teachers and administration, that popularized best practices across the district, provided new literature and expertise to classrooms and served as centers for professional development benefiting all schools. Once they were eliminated, staff development became a challenge, often disconnected from the classroom. Not until 2010 was a unified approach re-established for classroom literacy and math instruction and professional development. (And even 14 years after Howard Fuller left the district, he attempted to directly undermine the district’s work by sending a letter to the Department of Public Instruction criticizing the MPS unified comprehensive literacy plan for not being “scientific.”)
As superintendent, Fuller also invited RAND Institute researcher and privatization advocate Paul T. Hill to speak to MPS administrators. Hill’s 1995 RAND report, “Reinventing Public Education,” details how to replace “the entire existing public education governance system” with a contracting system, making public education profit-driven.
Fuller describes his 1995 resignation as the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools as a result of school board elections with candidates backed by the teacher’s union winning four positions. He identifies a key issue in that campaign to be his attempt to bring forward a private New York-based company, called The Edison Project, to operate two of MPS‘s schools. His thinking was that “it seemed of little importance … that the projects were profit-making venture for the owners.” The four newly elected school board members opposed that project.
With changes on the board, Fuller states, “I wouldn’t be backed into a position of having to grovel for the board’s respect. I’m in nobody’s pocket.”
Following his resignation, Fuller strengthened his alliances with some of the most regressive elements holding political and economic power in the American ruling circles, whose focus was privatization policies intended to dismantle public education. He publicly stated that K-12 education would be his sole focus and work.
With the help of generous funders such as the Bradley and Walton Foundations, Fuller founded The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) in 1999 to increase African-American support for the school voucher movement. BAEO has chapters in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee but their reach is in far more states.
In the book Fuller uses a variety of arguments to rationalize his alliances. He works closely with the Bradley Foundation and in the past bragged of his close friendship with its deceased president and major architect of the modern conservative movement, Michael Joyce. This is the same Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation that funds conservative policies throughout the US, has been a major supporter of the Republican Tea Party movement and of ALEC, a group behind Stand Your Ground laws and voter restriction laws, among other reactionary policies. The foundation underwrote the blatantly racist study by Charles Murray resulting in the publication of The Bell Curve, which claims that Black people are intellectually inferior to other races. In his book Fuller describes a group of young people criticizing him for accepting money from the Bradley Foundation. He responded that it is “poetic justice” that they fund his work which he says stands in opposition to Murray’s claims. Since the Bell Curve was published, in 1994, Fuller has said very little about its content or its link to his major funder and ally, the Bradley Foundation.
Among Fuller’s portfolio of allies is the Walton family. He describes his particularly close relationship with the late John Walton, son of the Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who gave Fuller $900,000 to launch the BAEO. The Walton’s pay their workers substandard wages, benefits and healthcare while implementing discriminatory policies in their workplaces. Yet the Walton Foundation’s claim is to save the children of the very people they exploit. This is the family that is wealthier than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined.
Fuller defends his practice of uniting with regressive people in power and continuing to be silent about their role through a concept called “interest convergence,” which he says he learned from the late Harvard professor Derek Bell. “Black people in this country have made progress only when our interests converged with the interest of people in power,” he writes.
This is a significant misuse of Bell’s work. Bell, one of the originators of critical race theory, was talking about the centrality of racism in the United States and the difficulty in dismantling it—not the efficacy of opportunistically allying with rich reactionaries in the name of “saving black children.” Bell’s point was that Brown vs. the Board of Education happened during a brief period of time when black struggles for civil rights in the United States fit in with ruling class goals, including a need to look more progressive to emerging Third World countries during the Cold War. When the needs of the power structure and the white base changed, progress for African Americans stalled and reversed. That perspective is a far cry from Fuller’s efforts to manipulate legitimate anger about the racism in our public schools to enlist African American families in replacing public schools with private ones. His insistence on separating education from the context in which children, their families, and teachers operate—the unbelievable growth in inequality, the destruction of cities, the lack of jobs and affordable housing—make clear that he is not talking about addressing children’s futures in any meaningful way.
On the role of teacher unions, Howard Fuller wastes no words saying, “I had never viewed the teachers union as a working class organization,” he writes. “It was not at all like the union to which my mother had belonged or to the local 77, for which I worked in Durham, fighting for the janitors, maids, and other service workers at Duke University.” At a 2010 KIPP school summit Fuller compared teacher unions and their leaders to Governor George Wallace standing “at the door trying to keep our kids from getting in.” He does not hesitate to berate public school teachers and their unions while telling Teach For America enrollees they are in the forefront of the “new civil rights movement.”
Not surprisingly, Fuller was completely silent in the face of Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 attack in 2011 on all public employees and their unions. Many of these unions are like his mother’s union or Local 77, the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME) local he worked for. His silence gives encouragement to Tea Party and other Koch sponsored affronts.
Fuller endorses nearly every free-market K12 education initiative that has been proposed in the past two decades. The core of his strategy embraces vouchers, corporate and for-profit charters, and recovery school districts. He has aided the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, Milwaukee’s version of the chamber of commerce, in designing and lobbying to create two school systems for the City of Milwaukee; one school system for 20,000 students in high-performing schools by 2020, and a second school system that includes a turnaround district made up of low-performing Milwaukee public schools (led by a different superintendent) along with expanding vocational-technical education for large numbers of Milwaukee’s children.
Fuller characterizes himself as a reformer of K-12 education for low income students. But the book offers us little insight into best practices for teaching and learning in the K-12 classroom. In the final chapter of the book he talks about his work at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, the school previously named CEO Leadership Academy. This was a very low performing voucher school granted a charter by the city of Milwaukee because of his political influence in city government circles. The most recent state report card data shows Milwaukee Collegiate Academy performing poorer than most of the high schools in Milwaukee Public Schools with a percentage drop in reading and math scores, from 2013 to 2014, that exceed all MPS high schools.
But Fuller implies that the real reason this school is struggling is that it receives significantly less funding per pupil than does Milwaukee Public Schools. Fuller perpetuates the falsehood propagated by pro-privatization advocates about the per-pupil allocation that goes to public school students.
He does raise a curriculum practice at the school called “blended learning.” This is the practice of giving students face time with computer-based curriculum. While there are positive best-practice examples of “blended learning” it has too often been misused as a replacement for good teaching and learning. Just stating that it is being applied at a school guarantees nothing. Far too often corporate generated curriculum, using “scientific” researched labels and claiming alignment with the Common Core State Standards, does nothing for students’ intellectual development.
K-12 classrooms, in this time of growing inequality, must engage students in critical thought. They must learn to question the status quo. Our students must understand systems of oppression and exploitation and the role they must play in building a new world. If we reduce teaching and learning to teaching to the test, to the latest technology and software fad or to simple solutions like unsubstantiated “scientific” reading programs, we are not carrying out our responsibility to our children.
Fuller describes his work and the work of many others involved in the “parental choice movement” as “more of a rescue mission than a fight for broad societal change” with the one goal of sending more students to college. While this may sound well intentioned, the reality of his work has been to dismantle public school systems and turn public education over to the private sector.
With growing economic inequality, separating education from the larger growing oppression is a luxury that many low-income and working-class families cannot take advantage of. In fact, it is the connection between the fight for educational opportunity and human and civil rights that will bring about a more equitable society with more access to higher education.
In the book Fuller does not come clean about the fact that Milwaukee’s voucher program, as it approaches its 25th year, is a failed program. Reading and math averages fall behind Milwaukee Public Schools. Yet he is working overtime to expand similar programs in Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere.
Fuller describes his objection to Scott Walker’s 2011 attempt to lift the voucher caps for income and seats. He stated at the time, that if the proposed income caps were lifted, “this is where I get off the train.” He’s still onboard. He accepted a compromise that he claims “would allow more people with slightly higher incomes” to receive vouchers. The compromise allows for households making $77,000 per year to be eligible. Also, the majority of new voucher recipients, from the expansion statewide, were already enrolled in private schools.
When making such compromises Fuller is well aware of the direction vouchers are going in Wisconsin. The voucher program started with 300 students and was clearly designated for low-income families. There are now over 25,000 Milwaukee students in the program and it now has no cap for enrollment. The Milwaukee voucher program places it as the second largest school district in the state of Wisconsin.
With the recent re-election of Scott Walker and the strengthening of the Wisconsin Republican-led legislature, a “voucher in every backpack” of every Wisconsin student has become the right-wing clarion call.
Increasing access to college must be a key goal for all educators. But it rings hollow to think that it alone will be transformational for Black, Latino and other low-income communities – or achievable without drastic economic changes as well. We must teach our children to be part of a tide that raises all boats. Whether in Ferguson or Milwaukee, communities cannot afford for anyone to be silent.
Throughout U.S. history many community and political leaders have remained silent on the most important issues of the day giving them access to some of America’s most powerful men and money. Today the billionaire class and their representatives in the political arena are the source of an affront on the poor and working class. Whether it is–education, voting rights, mass incarceration, discrimination, employment, immigration, policing or stand your ground laws –the people are under attack. It is the obligation of all progressive-minded people to take a stand and speak truth to power against this offensive.
G.W. Bush, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, Tea Party Republicans, ALEC laws—Is their intention the liberation of poor communities and communities of color? The truth is that they are the power, the status quo, that must concede for progress to occur.
While Howard Fuller may try to rest on his past militant laurels, in life’s journey where we end up is more important than where we started. An alliance today with the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, and Tea Party Republicans is an insult to those who have fought in the past and an affront to those fighting today for social justice and who continue to speak truth to power.