He’s been called both a respected voice in the African American community and a tool of billionaire conservatives. He’s a onetime labor activist who says teachers unions are blocking poor children from getting a good education. And he’s a civil rights champion who broke with the NAACP over publicly funded vouchers for private schools.
There’s been plenty written about Howard Fuller. Fourteen books mention some aspect of his lengthy career as a civil rights champion, community organizer, educator and school choice proselytizer. But Fuller says no one really understands him.
So at 73, Fuller has penned a memoir — “No Struggle, No Progress” — which was released Tuesday during an afternoon event at the National Press Club.
“Everyone has their own view about me,” Fuller said in an interview Monday. He wrote the book with Lisa Frazier Page, a former Washington Post reporter. “They have it for their little bit that they think they know about me. But I thought it was time for me to tell my story.
“I wrote it in the hope that young people would read what it’s like to engage and struggle over a long period of time,” Fuller said. “I want them to see that there are twists and turns and ups and downs, personal and political, and that conditions change and lead you in different places.”
Fuller’s struggles began in childhood. Raised by his mother and grandmother in Milwaukee, he grew up in poverty and spent summers with family in the Jim Crow South. After becoming the first black man to graduate from a small Wisconsin college, Fuller worked for the Urban League trying to integrate previously all-white industries. Next stop was North Carolina, where he was a community organizer in some of the country’s poorest black communities.
Frustrated with the slow pace of some of the more mainstream civil rights groups, Fuller got involved in the Black Power and African Liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He founded Malcolm X Liberation University, an independent black college in North Carolina that lasted four years before it went broke.
He worked for a time as a business agent for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), organizing hospital workers in Durham, N.C. Fuller began to see education as a way to make a profound positive impact on struggling communities.
In 1991, Fuller was hired as superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools as the city became the first in the country to use a voucher system, providing tax dollars to pay private school tuition for low-income children.
As superintendent, Fuller repeatedly battled the teachers union over staffing issues, charter schools and the voucher program.
“This whole thing to me is about power,” said Fuller, who resigned as superintendent in 1995 after an election resulted in a school board with four of the five members backed by the union. “And our children are not the primary basis for many decisions.”
More than 20 years after Milwaukee’s voucher program began, results are mixed. Researchers have no clear evidence that either system — traditional public schools or public charter schools — is better.
That’s because government needs to exercise greater oversight of public charter schools and voucher programs to weed out bad schools, Fuller said. And it needs to improve traditional public schools as well, he added.
In 2000, Fuller founded a nonprofit, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which promotes vouchers for poor children around the country. The organization has received significant funding from the Bradley and Walton foundations and from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Fuller’s embrace of vouchers has put him at odds with the NAACP, liberal groups, the unions and the Obama administration. In 2009, Fuller and five others blocked the main entrance of the U.S. Department of Education to protest the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce funding for the D.C. school voucher program created by Congress.
Fuller says he is not anti-public schools just because he has alliances with philanthropists who are critical of traditional public education.
“There are people who support parent choice because they don’t believe in public institutions,” he said. “There are people on my side of the ed reform debate who have an economic interest in reforms. I was always clear that people who support universal vouchers [vouchers for all students, regardless of income] are using poor people. At some point, you make a choice. You have a convergence of interests. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to hang with them all the time.”
“I’m not an ideologue,” he said. “The issue to me is how to help people who lack power have power, and what are you going to do at a moment in time and what will help you get it done.”