The Continuing Struggle: Howard L. Fuller

Published May 1, 2001

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Frederick Douglass

Dr. Howard L. Fuller quotes Frederick Douglass frequently, and with good reason. The pre-Civil War struggle of the young Douglass, first in learning to read and write and then in escaping from slavery by the age of 20, parallels the struggle that young blacks today also must undertake to gain a good education and escape the bonds of ignorance. As Fuller notes, “Nothing precious comes easily.”

While well-known in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a long-time proponent of better educational opportunities for the city’s minority student population, and as a high-profile superintendent of the city’s public schools from 1991 to 1995, Fuller also has achieved national stature for his forceful and eloquent advocacy of fundamental education reform.

Last year, Fuller amplified that call for fundamental change by bringing together a group of emerging leaders from African-American communities across the country and forming a new black leadership organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Fuller serves as the organization’s first president.

Since 1995, Fuller has been a distinguished professor of education at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, where he also is the founder/director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning. Prior to his tenure as Milwaukee schools superintendent, he served in a number of public service positions, including director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services, and dean of general education at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. He has received numerous awards and recognition over the years, including three Honorary Doctorate Degrees.

When the third annual symposium for emerging black leaders convened in Milwaukee in early March this year, it was attended by more than 600 educators and activists from 35 states. At the opening session on March 2, Fuller delivered a passionate speech on “The Continuing Struggle of African Americans for the Power to Make Real Educational Choices.” An abbreviated version of his speech is provided below.

We have known deep rivers of sorrows and we have experienced vast deserts of despair but somehow, some way, we have persevered. But the pain and the scars sometimes reach down and touch the very depths of our souls.

How deep was the pain when we were told to move to the back of the bus?

How jagged were the scars when they told us, “Niggers ain’t allowed to eat here”?

How much did the wounds ache when they told us to train a white person for the job they said we were not qualified to do?

All of these dehumanizing acts left scars and caused pain . . . but is there anything more painful than seeing our children being mis-educated, under-educated, dropping out of school, or being pushed out of school? How painful is it to have our young not being taught, not understanding that they are indeed “young, gifted, and black”?

It is a pain that none of us, not one of us should allow to continue for another day. Did we start rebellions on the master’s plantation to sit here in 2001 having our children unable to read and write? Did we get to sit in the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960 and demand to be served, just to arrive at another lunch counter today where we are now welcome but we can’t read the menu? I don’t think so!

We did these things because we were driven by a collective will. A collective value system, if you will, that refused to allow our people to be denied our God-given rights as human beings. We were driven by a belief structure that told us that we owe a debt to the generation that came before us, and we have a responsibility for the generations that will follow us.

Wasn’t there a time when we knew that the next generation was going to be smarter than the previous generation? Can we say that today? Don’t you feel the pain when we have to acknowledge that, unless we do something, far too many of the next generation will be dumber than us?

This is a strange point in our history. Ironically, because of the struggles of the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties, more opportunities have opened up for us. Du Bois’s talented tenth has never been more in evidence. We have black people at all levels of the political structure in this country. We have black millionaires. We influence the cultural direction of this country with our music and the way we dress.

We have young men making millions of dollars for bouncing a ball, or hitting a ball, or tackling somebody who has a ball; and then they get millions more for hawking athletic shoes, tee-shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets.

Yet while all of this is happening there is another kind of reality deep in the base of our communities. In front of our very eyes our children are dying–physically and/or mentally. Think about it. We have a crisis of monumental proportions when it comes to the real world for far too many of our children. The statistics are staggering:

  • In Wisconsin, mirroring a national trend, the average ACT score for college-bound white seniors is 22.5, compared with only 17.4 for black students.
  • Nationwide, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that in reading, math, and science, whites are much more likely than blacks to be at “proficient” or “advanced” levels.

Professor Lawrence Stedman described the dimensions of the crisis as follows at a 1997 Brookings Institution conference:

. . . [Twelfth] grade black students are performing at the level of middle school white students. These students are about to graduate, yet they lag four or more years behind in every area. . . . Racial gaps in achievement . . . are as large or larger than they were a decade ago. . . . [A] generation has passed and the achievement of educational equality remains an elusive dream. Schools and society remain divided into two different worlds, one black and one white, separate and unequal.

How long will we as a people tolerate this? I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that the Black Alliance for Educational Options will do everything that we can to help our people fight back. We are declaring war against the conditions that lead to the mis-education, the under-education and the non-education of our children. This has to stop now–not tomorrow, or next week, or next year–now!

The Black Alliance for Educational Options’ mission is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for black children. That is our mission and we take it seriously. This mission is rooted in the fundamental belief that poor parents ought to have the capacity to choose the learning environments they believe are best for their children.

Our organization supports parental choice as a weapon in the arsenal that is needed to achieve an effective education for our children.

Let me once again be clear on what we mean when we say choice, because choice is a concept that is often misunderstood by well-meaning people or distorted purposefully by people who want to kill it. The term is often used to mean only vouchers. BAEO does indeed believe that means-tested vouchers are one form of parental choice–a very important form–but parental choice means more than just vouchers.

For BAEO, parental choice means policies that give families the capacity to choose from a wide range of learning environments they feel are best for their children. These options can be public or private, and indeed could operate outside of the standard institutional framework of schooling.

We support a variety of policy initiatives that provide options for parents and children: charter schools, public-private partnerships, means-tested vouchers, contract schools, homeschooling, cyberschools, black independent schools, and historic schools like Piney Woods, as well as innovative governance arrangements in existing educational institutions.

What we are fighting for is equity and access.

What do I mean when I use the term equity? The dictionary says equity is “something that deals fairly and equally with all concerned.” Equity is a concept I have been pursuing in one way or another for African-American people for over 30 years.

Obviously, equity is a relative term. When can we declare that equity has been achieved? What does it look like? For me, the quest for equity is an eternal struggle that manifests itself in the push for respect, for dignity, for influence, and for self-determination. The degree to which we will achieve equity is the degree to which we are truly able to be respected, to be able to function with dignity, to be able to exercise influence over our lives, and in the end be able to determine for ourselves the course of our reality.

What about access? In a word, it means accessible. For our purposes today the question is: Does parental choice enhance accessibility for the children with the greatest needs? I believe it does.

I contend that the right kind of parental choice programs do indeed give a measure of equity to people who have long been denied real voice in the educational affairs of their children. Choice provides access to educational environments that were inaccessible or did not exist prior to the programs. Choice provides a way out for children who need an escape hatch, while at the same time putting pressure on the existing system to change.

I read a book called Exit, Voice and Loyalty, which makes the point that you have a voice when you can get up and leave. Or, to put it another way, “If you can’t go nowhere, you ain’t got no voice.”

I contend that choice programs–by providing a measure of equity and enhanced accessibility–increase the likelihood that many more children will be able to gain the skills needed to engage in the practice of freedom. By giving low-income parents an opportunity to choose schools–public or private–that might work best for their children, we will increase the level of equity and access in this society.

This program is at its core an empowerment strategy. I strongly believe that the ability to impact the flow and distribution of money is a critical ingredient in the struggle for fairness and equality in American society. We must give poor parents the power to choose schools–public or private, non-sectarian or religious–where their children will succeed. And we must give all schools the incentives to value children and work to meet their needs.

Consider the power of this right in the hands of families who have little or no power because they control no resources, no levers of influence over the decision-making process that impacts their children’s education. Consider how this power may change the shape of the future for their children. And consider how the absence of this power may mean their children will be trapped in schools that more affluent parents who oppose choice would never tolerate for their own children.

The issue is not choice in America. It is who has it. Those of us with money already have it.

Equity and access, through changing the power arrangements, are the ways to engage our people in the practice of freedom. In our view, the realization of democracy is tied up in our struggle to educate our children. In the end, the more children we educate, the better our chances are of sustaining and deepening the democracy.

BAEO clearly understands that what we stand for runs counter to the views of very powerful forces in this country. We understand that what we stand for is opposed by many respected organizations and individuals in the black community. But, we know that we are on the right side of history on this issue. We must take a stand, no matter who opposes us.

We understand that we will be called names. We understand that we will lose friends. We understand that people will lie about our efforts and try to get us off course. But we know this is not a struggle for the faint of heart. Wresting power from established organizations will never come easily. Nothing precious comes easily.

So we are ready.

When they say, “School choice will destroy public education,” we say: You don’t know what public education is. What makes public education public is that it operates in the public interest, and having 28 percent completion rates for black children is not in the public interest.

We say: People need to make a distinction between the concept of public education and the system that delivers it. Public education is no more the existing system than any single church is religion. We don’t want to destroy pubic education, we want to strengthen it by redefining it.

When they say, “You are being duped by the right wing,” we say: We have independent minds.

When they say, “You are taking money from white people,” we say: We are fortunate that we have friends who respect us and respect our agenda. We say: We understand you can’t fight battles with no money. We say: We are grateful for the support we have received, but we will never give up our capacity to think independently.

When they say, “What will happen to the kids who are being left behind?” We say: What’s happening to them now? Why didn’t you ask that question when you with money left them? We say: Why the concern now because we want poor parents to have some of the same options?

When they say, “School choice is opposed by many black church leaders,” I say: Our enemy is not the church. Our enemies are the people who would maintain control of our kids and not educate them.

When they say, “The public schools are places where the races come together,” I say: In the Bronx? In the central cities of this country? I don’t think so. The only people getting together there is us.

So, my friends, my brothers and sisters, I say: Cast away illusions and prepare for struggle. I say: “It must be a struggle!”