Relentlessly Pursuing School Choice: an exclusive interview with Howard L. Fuller

Published August 1, 2002

“I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
Frederick Douglass, aged about 10, after hearing his master say teaching him to read “would forever unfit him to be a slave.”
Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

Although it’s now more common for school boards to hire a superintendent from outside the ranks of certified teachers and administrators, that wasn’t the case in 1991, when the school board in Milwaukee, Wisconsin selected Dr. Howard L. Fuller as chief executive of the city’s public school system—a system described at the time as being in “a crisis situation.”

Well-known locally as a civil rights activist and children’s advocate, Fuller had taught at several colleges and held a doctorate in the sociological foundations of education from Marquette University, but he had no working experience in elementary and secondary schools.

Within four years, Fuller had turned the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) into a nationally watched experiment in reforming schools for the benefit of students and parents. He put a rigorous curriculum in place, developed school-to-work programs, decentralized the district, and gave budgetary authority—as well as responsibility for student achievement—to individual schools. Attendance rates improved, reading scores rose, and standardized test performance advanced.

Not everyone welcomed Fuller’s reforms. The local teacher union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, opposed his plans to hire private, for-profit companies—including Edison Schools, Inc.—to run some of the city’s schools. The union also opposed Fuller’s push to expand charter schools and his support of the city’s growing voucher program.

In April 1995, union-backed candidates won four of the nine MPS board seats. With the 5-4 board split likely to force significant compromises on key issues and make the superintendent an apologist for not moving forward with a campaign of aggressive reforms, Fuller resigned and pledged to work for reform outside of the system.

Now—as columnist Neal R. Peirce predicted—instead of being an annoyance just to the teacher union in Milwaukee, Fuller’s ideas, enthusiasm, and advocacy for children have made him a potent national figure in American education reform, prompting communities across the country to provide parents with more options for educating their children. Two years ago, he co-founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a new black leadership organization which already has chapters under development in 29 cities in 22 states. He current serves as its chairman.

Fuller is a distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. He spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in education reform?

Fuller: I got involved in education when I came back to Milwaukee in 1976 and got a job at Marquette University as director of special services in the Educational Opportunity Program. That was a part of the TRIO Program—Talent Search, Upward Bound, and Special Services for College Students—which had been set up through the Office of Economic Opportunity.

We were taking young people who had graduated from high schools around the country—but mainly from the Milwaukee Public Schools—and trying to get them enrolled at Marquette University. That’s when I first became aware of the fact that a lot of our young people were not getting the type of education they needed to be able to get into a college like Marquette University. These were the ones who had graduated from high school. We weren’t even dealing with those who weren’t succeeding.

Then a brand new high school was built to replace the one I graduated from, and MPS came up with a plan to deny the neighborhood children access to the new school and turn it into a citywide specialty school. As an alumnus, I got involved in trying to save the high school as a neighborhood school, and that led me to see what was actually happening to low-income black children as far as education was concerned.

I ultimately became involved with Governor Tony Earl, a Democrat. I urged him to set up a study commission to look at the quality of education not only in the Milwaukee Public Schools but in all the surrounding schools as well. That’s when it became really clear to me that we had this huge gap in learning between black children and white children. When you added class on top of that, it was even more devastating. That’s when some of us called for the creation of a separate school district.

The idea was to create a smaller school district that would consist of seven elementary schools and two middle schools, all clustered around the high school I graduated from. Representative Polly Williams, Larry Harwell, and I were very involved in the leadership of that effort. We actually got it to a vote in the state legislature. Polly put together a bill to create the district. We got it through the Assembly and then we lost it in the Senate.

After that, Bob Peterkin came in as the superintendent, with Deborah McGriff as his deputy. They were asked to work with representatives of the community and Polly Williams to draft legislation to create a choice program. Peterkin and McGriff supported allowing low-income children in failing schools to get a voucher to attend existing private schools that had a record of success with these children. But when it got to the point of trying to put an actual bill together in 1989, they were not able to come up with language that was acceptable to everyone involved. Polly decided to proceed with the bill that ultimately became the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

If the system was not going to educate the kids, and if we couldn’t create our own separate school district, then, as Polly said, “Well, let us go.” Give us some avenues to try to create other institutions or to access other institutions where, potentially, our children could get a better education. For that to work, the dollars have to follow the children.

The whole process for me in getting to choice was a process of struggle, trying to address the educational needs of low-income black children.

Clowes: Now, like Polly Williams, you’re not in favor of universal choice.

Fuller: No, I’m not. The whole reason I’m involved in this movement is to try to figure out a way to give low-income parents an advantage they do not now have. If you move toward a universal voucher program, I think what will happen is that low-income parents will not have any improvement in their overall situation. What we’re trying to do is to create a situation where there can be some advantage for those parents who most need an advantage: the parents whose children now are forced to stay in schools that simply are not working for them.

Clowes: Can you shed any light on why there is so little political support for school choice in the black community, even though public opinion polls show a high level of support for school choice among black people?

Fuller: Most black people—even those who support school choice—are not like me. I’m a one-issue person.

Choice has not yet become a wedge issue for the black community in general, even for those who support choice, and so the choice issue gets caught up in other issues. People say, “Yes, but the people who support school choice oppose affirmative action. They’re against minimum wage.” Many black people think people who support school choice are opposed to these other things they believe are necessary to improve their lives.

The other thing is there are a lot of lies out there about school choice. The people who oppose choice are ruthless. They will distort the truth. They will lie. They have a much, much stronger political machine than we’ll ever have, and they use it. They use it effectively to try to defeat this issue.

For instance, our opponents say school choice is new and untested. People who are honest know there’s nothing new or untested about school choice. People with money have always had choice, and will continue to have it. If schools do not work for them or their children, they will move to communities where they do work, or they will put their children in private schools. The only thing that’s different here is we’re talking about allowing low-income parents, through government intervention, to be able to have choice.

Clowes: Another claim is that choice schools don’t foster the democratic ideals of the United States like public schools.

Fuller: Actually, there’s a lot of research out there showing private schools in some ways stress more of the democratic ideals than the public schools. I think that’s just a bogus argument, frankly.

For instance, many of the private schools participating in the Milwaukee choice program are much more racially integrated and class integrated than many of the public schools. It’s another one of those claims opponents throw out that is not supported by any evidence.

Clowes: What about the call for more regulation of choice schools to make them more accountable?

Fuller: You can’t have any of these discussions in the abstract. You have to talk about them as they apply to existing political conditions.

People talk about vouchers as if there were a generic voucher program. There is no such thing. What we have are specific voucher programs designed in a variety of ways. For example, we have a particular situation in Wisconsin where the state Supreme Court has ruled the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is legal and constitutional, in part because there is no excessive government entanglement.

What you find is that a lot of the people who are shouting about accountability are not really interested in accountability at all. What they’re interested in is creating more and more rules and regulations so that many of the private schools will no longer want to participate because of the government intrusion. Most important, the choice opponents would be able to take us back to court and argue there now is excessive government entanglement.

Clowes: Then the Parental Choice Program would be struck down.

Fuller: Exactly. What we have proposed, with the agreement of the schools participating in the choice program, is a longitudinal study where the schools would voluntarily take the same tests as MPS students. We would do the study over a 10-year period, with yearly reports so the public could see what was actually happening in the choice schools. The challenge is to do this in a way that doesn’t expose the program to the risk of having our opponents come back and argue the program is now unconstitutional.

Clowes: If religious schools weren’t a part of the choice program, would the government be free to add even more regulations to participating secular schools since the “excessive entanglement” deterrent applies only to religious schools?

Fuller: The issue is not so much about state and church as about public and private. Just because a school receives public funds doesn’t turn it into a public school. There are many private organizations in America that get money from the government, but just because they get money from the government doesn’t make them public entities.

The opponents of school choice argue they have a right to know what is happening in a school that receives public dollars. What we’re saying is, “Yes, and there’s a way to do that that doesn’t render the program unconstitutional.”

What’s been very interesting is that the people who oppose the Parental Choice Program are the ones who have taken our accountability plan out of the budget. Then they try to argue we oppose accountability. It’s simply not true.

There are all kinds of accountability measures. Just publishing reports is not accountability. One of the strongest accountability measures is when a parent has the ability to take his or her child out of one school and have the dollars follow that child to another school chosen by the parent.

If you read the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, what the court said was that the combination of the Parental Choice Program and the existing rules and regulations in the state statutes is enough to guarantee the public’s interests are being met. We’re going further than that and saying, “We will voluntarily take tests, but it ought to be done in a longitudinal way.” It ought to be more than just standardized tests. It ought to be completion rates, parent satisfaction, attendance—a whole variety of measures that go into determining the success or failure of an individual school.

Clowes: The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a favorable ruling on the Cleveland voucher case. Do you see that as a point where there’ll be a major turnaround in public opinion and public policy regarding school choice?

Fuller: I don’t think so. I think the people who are opposed to school choice will intensify their efforts to try to defeat it in legislatures and in the court of public opinion. I think they’ll become even more focused on trying to defeat it.

With a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, we have turned a corner in the sense there no longer is a constitutional cloud hanging over school choice, but in my opinion the politics of the issue will become even more severe. The reality of the opposition means we will have to become even more relentless in trying to make school choice a reality for our children.

There’s no question in my mind that we have an even bigger fight ahead of us. We will hear all of the same arguments that have been made for the last 11 years. They will continue to be made, and they will be made more vehemently. Not only will they be made against vouchers, but increasingly those arguments will be made about charter schools, too. Charter schools are already under attack.

Given the situation we face, we should have every possible choice option on the table. We ought to be relentlessly pursuing as many different options as we can—publicly funded vouchers, tax credits, scholarship programs, partnership schools, charter schools, and so on. Because, clearly, the system we have now is not working for large numbers of children.

We need to make a clear distinction between public education as a concept and a public education system that is a deliverer of the concept. They’re not the same thing. There are a lot of different ways we could organize the delivery of public education. If you’re criticizing the delivery system, it does not mean you are opposed to the notion of public education.

For more information …

Further information on the Black Alliance for Educational Options is available at BAEO’s Web site at

BAEO and Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning also support a Web site that provides a wealth of information on school choice: