Kevin: The parental school choice movement began in earnest 30 years ago, when hundreds of Milwaukee students received publicly-funded scholarships to attend a variety of private schools in that city. Since then, nearly 5 million American schoolchildren attend quality public, charter, and private schools by way of a host of school choice programs in almost every state. What drove such incredible growth over the last three decades? Can we expect that trajectory to continue moving forward? And what does the future hold for families looking for alternatives to traditional public schools? This is what I want to know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by school choice pioneer, Dr. Howard Fuller, to find out. Dr. Howard Fuller has been at the forefront of the school choice movement since its inception. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, he was a tireless advocate for racial equality and expanded educational opportunity for all.
As superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, he worked to change the system from the inside. And for the last 25 years, he continued to lead the charge as founder at the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, until his retirement in 2020. Dr. Fuller is with us today to discuss the past, present, and future of school choice. This is a legendary individual. You know how I feel about you. You've had a storied career, you know, athlete, educator, activist, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Your whole life, Howard, has spoken to your commitment for children and to children.
Dr. Fuller: First, Kevin, let me begin by thanking you for having me on. You and I have been through a lot together. And no, I mean, I think people need to understand that. And we've come out on the other end as friends and comrades, and that means a lot to me.
Kevin: I wanna go back to the beginning briefly. You grew up in Milwaukee. And one question I've always meant to ask you, have you always been a hellraiser?
Dr. Fuller: I owe everything to my mother and my grandmother. Right? And I believe that I have my grandmother's fire and my mother's commitment to service. I think it's some combination of those two things. And I think what led me to want to do what I've ultimately done was, and you know this, when you're growing up and there are...and you don't have a lot. There are these individuals who reach out and help you. You know how Black people, back during the so-called segregated period, they would identify young people that they thought had promise, right? And then they would pour everything that they had into those individuals. And that happened with me, with people like Mr. Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, Dr. Atkinson, who used to give me free medical care because we couldn't afford it.
All of those people, man, like, poured something into me. So, at some point, Kevin, I decided that if I... It wasn't if I was going to go to college, because, like, I tell this story about how my little grandson, you know, six or seven years ago, right, he was five years old. And I told him to do something, and he asked me why. And I was like, "Why?" I didn't even know there was a word called "why" until I got grown, you know. So, my mother and my grandmother had told me "you're going to college." So it wasn't a debate. It wasn't like, "Well, I don't know." And so, once I got to college and I started thinking about all these people who had given back to me, then I realized that to those of us who much is given, much is required, and so that I knew that I had to come back in some way, and give back in the ways that I had been so fortunate to have those people do the same for me.
Kevin: You ended up being superintendent of schools in your hometown. What was that like? What did that feel like? And I know that there was a lot of drudgery and grind with it, but how did that feel in terms of coming full circle, based on what you just said?
Dr. Fuller: They had to change the state law in order for me to become the superintendent, because I had never been a teacher or a principal. So they changed the state law in Wisconsin so that I could be hired. They really should have hired Deborah McGriff as a superintendent, but they didn't. And so, the people in the community didn't want another person who come in from outside, because Bob Peterkin and Debbie had come from Cambridge. And so, when the issue again came up about a new superintendent, a lot of people came to me and said, "Howard, you should become the superintendent." And a lot of people also said, "Howard, you should never be the superintendent." So, it wasn't like everybody was in agreement, right? There was a lot of people who organized against me, but fortunately, a lot of people organized for me, and we were able to change the state law so that I could be hired to be the superintendent.
And I think, Kevin, what I did was I went in there thinking that I could actually change the system, that I could actually really change it, not just move a few chairs around on the Titanic, but to really change it. I concluded that after all that I've tried to do and all of us have tried to do, that education is not a systemic change lever for our people. What it is, it's a rescue mission, man, that we're out there rescuing as many children as we can, and hoping in that process that you going change the trajectory of their lives, and that maybe then it will change the trajectory of their family's lives and their communities' lives. But education by itself is not a lever for radical change to deal with the conditions that our people are in. You can't... Kevin, you know that. So much stuff happens to a child before they ever walk into a building, and you would be a fool to say that none of that matters.
Kevin: And what's interesting about that, and I actually began thinking about that as a legislator, when I was pushing, as you know, for parent choice, you know, the vouchers, scholarships, charter schools, and when I would talk to families, even folks like Virginia Walton Ford and some of the parents working with her, parents who lived in public housing in my ward, you know, school was just one of the things on the list. I mean, there was, you know, "How am I gonna... I need to be able to feed my family," or, "I don't wanna be evicted." And I'm struck by, you called it a rescue mission, and this is where I sometimes quote you, sometimes I don't, you know, the Harriet Tubman.
Because people say to me all the time, you know, traditionalist in education, you know, "I don't wanna support... I can't support parent choice because we're not saving all the kids." And, "We gotta fix the system so all kids get what they deserve." But when you have that wide disparity of the social challenges and day-to-day challenges that families have, it is like a rescue mission. And you talk about Harriet Tubman, you know, while Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were trying to figure out the global issue of slavery, that she was taking one slave up north at a time. That has been your approach. And, to your point earlier, after all these years, 5 million kids in charters and choice programs around the country, and we got 58 million kids in schools, and over half those kids are in poverty. How successful have we been?
Dr. Fuller: And the reality of it is that we have a responsibility to work to change the system, but at the same time, we have a deeper responsibility to rescue every child that we can. And Kevin, none of us know what rescuing that one child will mean not only to his or her life, but to all of us. So, I wanna make that point. The second point that I wanna make, Kevin, is that this is an extremely difficult time. It's always been difficult for those of us who support parent choice, right, for different reasons. And I'm using the term "parent choice," because you know, even though I lost that argument years ago, I don't use "school choice," because I didn't get in this to give schools a choice. I got in this to give parents a choice.
And so, you and I have been in very, very difficult sets of circumstances, and we still are, in a political sense. And here's what I mean by that. You and I have sat in rooms with individuals whose worldview we do not share. And one of the things that we've had to learn is what Derrick Bell called interest convergence theory, in his book "Silent Covenants." Derrick Bell talked about this idea that the reason why we were able to be successful in the Civil Rights Movement was because at the time that the battles were going on, the United States was trying to prove to the rest of the world that democracy was a better form of government than communism.
In order to do that, they had to tell Bull Connor, "Look, man, you can't sic dogs on people while we're trying to tell the rest of the world how great we are." So, at that moment in time, our interests converged with their interests, right? And so, they told Bull Connor, "Hey, man, you gotta stop that," not because all of them necessarily cared, but it was messing up a larger issue. So, what that says is that we support parent choice. A lot of the people who support parent choice don't support other things that we believe in. So, you're walking this tightrope now, where you're sitting down talking to somebody who don't want the families of the children to have health care, or to get a decent wage, or to have great housing. So, you're sitting there talking to somebody who's telling you to be happy because they support vouchers, you're like, "Hey, man, yeah, you support vouchers, but everything else that you're doing is against the families that we support."
Kevin: You use an expression to sort of highlight this point you're making, "a slender strand of unity," which... But today, you talk about the political climate and what we do for kids who are challenged, come from challenged home environments. Where can we find that slender strand of unity? And I will say that increasingly, because of the growing number of kids in poverty, the growing number of kids graduating from high school, not at grade level, two-thirds, according to the U.S. Department of Education, or all high school graduates are not at grade level, that, you know, while we've been focused on Black children, Brown children, children of color, there's a growing number of White children who also aren't getting what they should get. Is there a way to find that same slender strand of unity, to uplift things which... Because I think that's ultimately the momentum that could contribute to changing the system.
Dr. Fuller: Yeah. So, let me talk about that term, because Lawrence Patrick Jr., LP III, actually came up with that term, and he called it a "narrow strip of unity." And what he was talking about, Kevin, was that [inaudible 00:12:34] had a narrow strip of unity. Because as you remember, even though I talked about all of these other things, housing and this and that, we never talked about any of those things within [inaudible 00:12:44], right, because we only had unity around parent choice, and we were able to stay together for 18 years because we stayed focused on that narrow strip of unity. Now, what we didn't say is that you are free, as an individual, to go join whatever other organizations you want, and fight for...but we are not going to, like, bring that up in here, because if we do, we're gonna explode that narrow sense of unity that we have.
Because we didn't... We had Republicans, we had Democrats, we had independents, we had [inaudible 00:13:21] Because we never asked anybody, "What is your political affiliation?" What we said was, "Can you be committed to our mission of trying to make sure that low-income and working-class Black parents have choice?" That was our narrow strip of unity. What you're now talking about, Kevin, is those of us who feel deeply about Black people. And I have to say this, because I'm worried that in all of this discussion about people of color and this and that, all of which I support, Black people's interests get lost in that process. And so, what has to happen is we can build unity, but it has to be principled unity. So, what it would mean is that we can form coalitions, but those coalitions have to be respectful of what it is that the different people are bringing to the table.
Kevin: Communication is important. It is so important. Oftentimes, we find that we have more in common with some people than we believe, but the challenge in this polarized world, as you alluded to, is now, the bad intentions are assumed. It's a given. And once...you know, not only the bad intentions, but sort of bad intentions on steroids, "you're trying to hurt me, personally." And then that destroys any opportunity for communication. I still believe, you know, we've talked about this, glass half empty, glass half full, sometimes you're half empty, sometimes I'm half full, but I really do believe that the only way the fabric of this country is gonna change, similar to those converges, that narrow strip of unity, the political realities of the worldview, what have you, that we saw in the '60s, we've gotta find ways to communicate and build those coalitions.
Dr. Fuller: I totally agree with you, Kevin. The difficult... I mean, there's many difficulties, right? But race is such a factor in American life, right, that if you don't understand the different manifestations of it, you will miss an opportunity to work with allies of different races and different ethnic groups, right? So, for example, there are brothers and sisters who I respect who are nationalists, who will say, "You can't work with no White people." And I will say, "Okay, brother, or sister, I get what you're saying, and I'm not trying to make you do that, but I don't know of any significant change that has taken place in this country for our people where there have not been some White people involved." I have a deep, deep feeling for my people, and I'm never gonna be unapologetic for that. It doesn't prevent me from working across racial lines and across political lines, because in the realm of politics, right, there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends. What there are, are permanent interests.
And our ability to define those interests and figure out who can work with us or who we can work with at different points in time, to promote those interests, is key. And there's no more key movement than what you and I have given a good part of our lives to, and that is supporting parent choice, the right of low-income and working-class Black people and Brown people and White people to exercise some of the choice that all of us with money have, Kevin, because you know if you got money in America, and schools are not working for your kids, you can either move to communities where they do work, you can put your kids in private schools, or you can get the most expensive tutoring on the planet. Right? You know that, I know that. And all of these people who are talking about how horrible choice is use it for their own children. And so, the issue has never been choice in America, it's who has it.
Kevin: Yeah. And well said. I couldn't agree with you more, Dr. Howard Fuller. I do have one last question. This is what I really wanna know. Those interests that we've talked about, that potentially could bring us all together, do you see a future in which they can come together to make sure that all children get a quality education?
Dr. Fuller: To go back to the "I Have a Dream," this is in what, 1963, 1964, '63, right? King was talking about, "I have a dream that all kids are gonna be judged..." But that ain't happening in America, that I see. I'm not saying it can never happen, but it ain't happening. And he talked about it in 1964, right? So, my point, Kevin, is I think we gotta save as many kids as we can. I think we gotta fight every day to rescue as many kids as we can. And for those of us who believe that you can actually change the system, God bless you, and you should fight for it every day. But while you're fighting for that, I'm gonna be fighting to rescue every single child that I can.
Kevin: Howard Fuller, thank you for joining me on "What I Want to Know." You're a living legend, my brother. Thanks again for joining us.
Dr. Fuller: Thanks for having me, Kev. You have a great day, my brother.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too, explore other episodes, and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation, and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Fuller
Dr. Howard Fuller has been at the forefront of the school choice movement since its inception. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, he was a tireless advocate for racial equality and expanded educational opportunity for all. As superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, he worked to change the system from the inside. And for the last 25 years, he continued to lead the charge as Founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University until his retirement in 2020.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.