By the Company It Keeps: Howard Fuller

It’s hard for me to overstate my level of respect for Howard Fuller. Early in my career, Howard was more legend than real person—someone I read and heard about. In Milwaukee, he was held in such esteem, longstanding rules were changed so he could become superintendent of schools. In that position he showed extraordinary compassion for disadvantaged families and enormous political courage by publicly supporting the city’s first-in-the-nation voucher program. After leaving that post, his dedicated himself to expanding the educational options available to low-income kids.

I got to know him in 2003. I was working for a coalition of organizations that supported charter schools, the Charter School Leadership Council, and I was housed in the offices of the Black Alliance for Education Options, which he chaired. On numerous memorable occasions I got to see firsthand his fervent but eloquent support for choice in schooling that made him famous. He was truly inspirational.

But I soon got to see another side of Howard. When it was decided that the national charter movement needed more than a loose coalition of groups speaking on its behalf, a large, extremely diverse group of individuals and organizations came together to form a new stand-alone nonprofit. Everyone agreed that only one person had the standing and skill to keep that group together, build a strategic plan, work with funders, and get the new organization off the ground: Howard Fuller. For the next year, I got to work by his side in creating the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

To this day, I’ve never seen anyone lead and manage a group like Howard. Whether it was convening the very first gathering to whiteboard the concept in a nondescript room in a small hotel outside of Chicago’s Midway airport, or convincing skeptical foundations on difficult conference calls, or chairing the first official board of directors meeting of 23 strong-willed individuals, Howard always displayed an uncanny combination of firmness, tact, directness, diplomacy, humility, and good humor.

Sometimes I shake my head and smile when I think that this revered, distinguished figure in our field was once quite a radical (hence my question below about a conversation with his former self). It is amazing how Howard has somehow preserved that revolutionary zeal while simultaneously acting as a statesman for the cause.

I am lucky to have had Howard Fuller as a mentor. America’s kids are blessed to have him as a warrior for their interests. And education reform is so very fortunate to continue to keep his superb company.

Why do you support school choice for disadvantaged families?

I prefer to use the term “parent choice” because for me this fight is about giving low-income and working class parents the power to choose the best educational options for their children. “School choice” to me implies that schools have the choice, which I think as a general proposition they should have. In this instance, however, their choice should be whether or not they want to participate in a parent choice program. I want the power to rest with the parents not the schools.

I support financial programs and policies such as private scholarship programs; tax supported programs such as: means-tested vouchers, opportunity scholarships, and tax credits. I also support charter schools and home schooling. I also support parent-choice options within traditional public schools if they are done in a way that does not in reality favor higher-income parents while allegedly giving everyone an equal chance.

I believe the right kind of parental choice programs and policies will give a measure of equity to low-income and working-class families parents who have long been denied a real voice in the educational affairs of their children. It could provide access to educational environments that were inaccessible to them or did not exist prior to these programs. It provides a way out for children who need an escape hatch while at the same time potentially putting pressure on the traditional systems to change.

Parental choice programs, by providing a measure of equity and enhanced accessibility, increases the likelihood that many more children will be able to gain the skills needed to be effective participants in a democratic society. These programs are, at their core, an empowerment strategy. The ability of poor and working-class people to impact the flow and distribution of educational dollars is a critical ingredient in the struggle for fairness and equality for themselves and their children.

I firmly believe parent choice is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to any serious effort to change schools and school systems in this country. At the end of the day, I do not believe we should have an America where only those of us with money have the power to choose the best educational environments for our children.

I remember at a conference, maybe a decade ago, you said, in response to a question about the most important challenge facing the charter school movement, “Quality is 1.a, but our lack of diversity is a very close 1.b.” Do you still feel that way?

Yes I do. Charter schools and all schools for that matter must have as their primary focus providing a high-quality education to all of their students. But education is also a pathway for those students to gain the skills that are needed for them to realize the benefits of freedom. I believe it is vital for people to be a real and active participant in their quest for their own freedom.

Therefore, it is important that students of color see some people leading and teaching them who both look like them and are focused on their interests. Beyond this central point, it is important from a political standpoint to ensure that there are high-performing schools and networks of high-performing schools being led by people of color. It is critically important for elected officials of color to support charter schools and that is made more likely if they are not being asked to only support quality schools controlled and led by white people.

I know this is not necessarily an easy point to discuss, but we must deal with reality, and, from my perspective, this point I am making is reality. We need to move past exhortations to have more “conversations” about diversity and actually create funding, policies and procedures that will actually cause it to happen. Our movement has become very adept at having “conversations” that do not lead to concrete results. We cannot allow that practice to continue on either of the important issues of quality and/or diversity.

Should voucher and tax-credit programs ensure a level of quality among all participating private schools, or should the government step aside and simply let parents decide? If there should be some kind of screen for quality, how should that work?

My views on this question have evolved over the years. When I first became engaged in the parent-choice movement, I was not as focused on quality. To the extent I was, I believed that parents would drive quality by simply refusing to attend bad schools. The problem with that thinking was at least twofold.

First, I did not (and still do not) have a precise idea of what constituted a good school (today we talk about great schools). Second, I did not fully understand the decision-making process that parents use to choose a school. I have learned over the years that there are certain characteristics that define good and great schools and that parent choice alone is not enough to guarantee quality. I have learned that parents choose schools for a variety of reasons—safety, their relatives attend the school, it’s close to their houses, etc. The quality of the school is not always at the top of their list.

I respect that but for those of us who support these programs, quality must be at the top of our list. I cannot envision a viable movement for education reform that does not include parent choice. But it is also clear that there must be some accountability measures built into the process along with parent choice to ensure quality. I think the private school side of parent choice can learn from what the charter sector has done particularly as it pertains to screening school operators before they are allowed to open schools. I think existing schools that want into the programs should go through the same process. Although, I believe schools of proven quality could through a modified process. I think private school parent choice 2.0 or 3.0 has to address the way to keep bad schools from participating in the programs and ways to remove those that continue not to serve kids well.

I remain very concerned with our inability to remove bad schools or put them into some type of improvement process once they get into the program. I think that is an issue in Wisconsin as it pertains to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. I think the legitimate concern is how do you create a system of accountability that does not lead to a complete loss of autonomy that schools need to be creative and responsive or that does not recreate the bureaucracy that was one of the key reasons for fighting for parent choice in the first place.

What was the toughest part about being superintendent of Milwaukee’s schools?

The toughest thing was not being able to do those things that would have made a real difference for a lot more kids. I fault the unions, my board, the laws and regulations, the inertia of a non-dynamic bureaucracy, inadequate funding, restrictions on the capacity of families to choose better schools for their children, teaching methodologies that did not work well for kids (we had a significant number of teachers who did not and still do not know how to teach reading), a community that was willing to accept mediocrity for “other people’s children,” and quite frankly my own mistakes and weaknesses.After it was all said and done, it was clear to me that the needs and interests of adults were more important than the needs and interests of kids.

I am firmly convinced that the problems I faced implementing a successful agenda for kids was not an issue of know- how. It was instead the lack of political will. Over and over again, the words of Ron Edmonds rang true:

“We can whenever and wherever we choose successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to accomplish the task. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we have not done it so far.”

The opening line of my book argues that the urban district is broken, can’t be fixed, and must be replaced by a new way of delivering public education to city kids. What do you think? Will the urban district ever produce the results our kids deserve?

I think unfortunately you are right. I think our problem continues to be equating public education with the system that delivers it. Public education is a concept. Our current traditional public education systems are delivery models. I think the models work for a lot of kids, but they also do not work for a lot of kids.

We must continue creating innovative systems of learning opportunities based on creative and flexible governance and finance structures – structures that put the interests of students first, allow dollars to follow students, and hold adults accountable for student achievement. I think without radical changes we will continue to see these systems fail large numbers of kids, particularly poor kids, a disproportionate number of whom are children of color.

For example many of our leaders say they want to change the educational reality for these children in one breath and then in the next breath they want all the protectors of the status quo to remain in power. There will NEVER be any real change in the education attainment for a significant number of our poorest children without changing the power relations within traditional systems of education that serve as one of the major barriers to any significant and sustained change that will benefit our children who need the help the most.

I want to be very clear here. I am not saying that the traditional school systems do not have some excellent educators who are doing heroic jobs every day for our children. I am saying, however, that many of these educators are working in systems that are dysfunctional; systems that in essence prevent them from realizing their goals and objectives of effectively educating all of our children. This is a discussion about systems not individual educators.

What books have had the most profound influence on you?

  • James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy
  • Derrick Bell, ed., Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation
  • Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hope for Racial Reform
  • James Anderson. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.
  • Joanne Grant. Ella Baker: Freedom Bound
  • George Breitman, ed. Malcolm X Speaks.
  • Andrea Williams. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom.
  • Jeffrey Henig, Richard Hula, Marion Orr, Desiree Pedescleaux. The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education.
  • Paulo Friere. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
  • Marianne Williamson. A Return to Love.
  • David Tyack. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education.
  • Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
  • Adam Faircloth. A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South.
  • Thomas Friedman. That Used to Be Us.
  • Thomas Friedman. The World Is Flat.
  • Richard Kluger. Simple Justice.
  • Taylor Branch. Parting the Waters.
  • Isabel Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns.
  • Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals.
  • Lewis Perelman. School’s Out.
  • Lerone Bennett. The Shaping of Black America.
  • Martin L. King. Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
  • Charles Payne. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.
  • Walter Rodney. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
  • Amilicar Cabral. Return to the Source.
  • Frantz Fanon. Wretched of the Earth.
  • Stephen Levitt and Stephen Durner. Freakonomics.
  • John Dewey. Democracy and Education.
  • John Hope Franklin Slavery to Freedom.
  • Paul Tough. How Children Succeed.
  • Chester E. Finn, Jr. We Must Take Charge.
  • Ted Sizer. Horace’s Compromise.
  • WEB Dubois. The Souls of Black Folks.
  • Booker T. Washington. Up From Slavery.
  • Joe Williams. Cheating Our Kids.
  • Ken Clark. Dark Ghetto.
  • Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline.
  • David Osborne & Ted Gabler. Reinventing Government.
  • Paul Hill. Reinventing Public Education.
  • Albert Hirschman. Exit, Voice and Loyalty.

I am sure I am missing a few, like your book ( 🙂 ). But I will stop here.

What went through your mind when you heard the jury’s decision in the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman trial?

Truthfully, I did not follow the case closely enough on a day-to-day basis to know all of the ins and outs of the legal arguments. But in my mind it was clear to me that George Zimmerman created the scenario that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. All he had to do was follow the instructions he was given to stay in his vehicle.

So I felt as one headline said he was found ‘not guilty” but clearly he is not “innocent.” I understood the rage that so many people felt about the decision. I particularly understood the reaction of so many Black people who view this decision through a prism of historic wrongs that have been visited upon our people. Unfortunately, I have seen so many decisions like this in my lifetime. I must say I have also seen jury decisions that I think did render justice to victims and their families. In times like this it is important to step back and remember that not all decisions made by juries have been unjust. I think this is one of them but what I won’t do is to condemn the entire justice system because it did not work in this instance.

I felt deeply sorry for Trayvon’s family because I knew in no way could they feel justice was done for their son. I also felt that as tragic as this case was there are hundreds of young black men being killed by other young black men in our communities and yet we have become numb to that reality. My thought was where is the outrage about that? I tweeted about where is the outrage about the “slow death” so many of our young people are experiencing because we continue to not properly educate them.

So obviously I had a lot of mixed emotions. But as I tweeted on that night it made me want to work harder to save as many kids as I can. I cannot bring Trayvon Martin back and I am not going to be involved in any protest demonstrations or work on changing any laws (e.g. “Stand Your Ground”) that could have been a factor in his death. I totally respect and applaud people who feel they must take these actions. But I am going to pursue a different path to show my concern. I am going to double down on my efforts to end the “slow death” caused by the failures of our educational systems to educate young people just like him and the young woman who testified who I think is 19 years old but could not read cursive.

If the Howard Fuller of 1973 could talk to the Howard Fuller of 2013, what would he say to you?

The first thing he would say is, “Man, how did you get so old?”

He would ask me if I still had the fervor to change the society to make it a better place for the poorest and the least powerful. He would tell me the impact that spending 30 days in Mozambique with Frelimo had on his thinking. He would tell me how it felt to be in Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio the night Malcolm X delivered his famous “Ballot or the Bullet’ speech, and how that speech changed his view of what it meant to be Black in America. He would remind me of the despair that he felt the day Martin L. King was assassinated.

He would then ask me a series of questions:

  • Was the War on Poverty was ever won?
  • Was Nelson Mandela ever released from prison?
  • Did the liberation fighters win their battles in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau? And if they did what is life like for the people now?
  • What are you working on these days? Is the education of our people still something that concerns you?
  • Are you still married? What about Kelli, Malcolm, Van and K. Miata?

He would then say it again, “Man how did you get so old?”

You’re a huge basketball fan and played college ball, so help me with this. When people talk about the greatest players of all time, they always go to Jordan, LeBron, Wilt, Russell…but Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double for a season! In your mind who was the best ever? Who was the best you ever saw live?

This is HARD because I have seen in person most of the best players that have ever taken the court including those listed in your question. If I am on the playground and there are so many dudes that if you lose it might be hours before you can play again, and I got first pick, I got to go with Wilt. It’s hard not to pick the Big “O”. But how do you not pick LeBron. Ok, I can’t pass up MJ. I need Russell but what about Magic? I changed my mind because I need Kareem. Since you pushed me up against the wall I am including Dr. J. What was the question again?

In addition to being a leading education reformer, you’re also a famed DJ. What are your favorite events to DJ, and what songs and performers do you play most?

I am semi-retired. I say “semi” because I am still the DJ for our high school reunions, which by necessity span several years (LOL). My favorite event to DJ was the BAEO Symposium “After Party.” It was great to see people “getting down” after being informed, inspired, and empowered. I also enjoyed being the DJ for a couple of parties after the National Charter School Conference. And of course when I did the prom a couple of years ago for CEO Leadership Academy, the high school whose board I chair.

What I play depends on the audience. I like all kinds of music. My favorite old-school artists are: Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Babyface, Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan, Teddy Pendergrass, Freddie Jackson, The Temptations, The Gap Band, The Supremes, the Four Tops, Earth Wind & Fire, James Brown, Minnie Riperton, The Dells, The O’jays, Prince, Rick James and Teena Marie, Michael Jackson.

My favorite old, old-school artists are; Louis Armstrong, Ruth Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone. My favorite artists out of the hip-hop generation are Public Enemy, Boyz II Men, Nas, 2Pac, Notorious BIG, Lil Kim, Salt-n-Peppa, Foxy Brown, NWA, Digital Underground, R Kelly, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Usher, Ludacris, Little Wayne, Wale, Beyonce, and Drake.

My favorite reggae artists are Bob Marley, Shaggy, Shabba Ranks, Peter Tosh.

On the blues side, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Lee Hooker and Millie Jackson. I know I am missing some people but I think this is a fairly representative list.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College