on education, race and racism and how we move forward as a country

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Howard Fuller poses with students of the Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, a public charter school he founded, initially as a private religious school, in 2004. (Photo: Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Howard Fuller announced this month that he is retiring from Marquette University, where he is a distinguished professor of education and founder and director of its Institute for the Transformation of Learning.

At 79, Fuller has served in many roles in his lifetime: civil rights activist, educator and civil servant. He is a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and best known in recent decades as a national advocate for school choice, which provides taxpayer-funded vouchers, typically to low-income families.

He is founder of Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, a local charter high school, which beganinitially as a private religious school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.He is a controversial figure for many public school advocates who believe school choice bleeds needed dollars from those schools.

In addition to retiring from Marquette, Fuller has resigned all of his board appointments, except for that of the school.

Fuller sat down with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter Annysa Johnson for a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion. These are excerpts:

Question: When you first announced your retirement, I could sense a weariness in your voice. It was clear you were struggling with where we are in this country right now. What can you say about education in the context of this moment?

Fuller: One of the things that became absolutely clear when the pandemic hit was what we already knew, and that was the inequities in education in this country. What the pandemic did was show which schools were already into the 21st century and which were holding on tightly to the 20th century, still functioning with an industrial-age paradigm. When the pandemic broke, the people who were tied lock, stock and barrel to the industrial-age paradigm, were lost. They had no idea what to do. Because everything was centered onyou gottacome to a building, the teacher is the center of learning, etc.

Now, whether the virus will lead to significant change, I’m a pessimist. Because the changes that have to be made are not just in the school day, not just in whether kids come to a building full-time. … Are we going to rethink credits? Are we going to rethink the Carnegie seat time hours? Are we prepared — and I don’t think we are — to rethink the entire way we are delivering education to our children in the 21st century. 

Q: That speaks to the pandemic. But what about the national reckoning on race and racism?

Fuller: There’s a larger issue here, and that is that we have to look more deeply at the entire structure on which this country has been built. And one of the foundations of that structure is racism. If America is going to get out of this racist past, it has to be willing to make raw, structural change.

One of the things it requires is an understanding of our history. Unfortunately, there is no common understanding. But there are certain facts people have to agree to. Look at the various symbols of hate and racism in America. A lot of people see these (Confederate) statues as if these were great Americans. No, these were traitors to America. These were people who declared they did not want to be part of the United States. These are monuments to a racist past.

The second thing is, there has to be the political will to make significant change. And significant change cannot come about without shared power. If people actually believe integration should take place in this country, then they have to talk about shared power.

Q: How do we do that? How do we even begin to get there?

Fuller: You have to have people in power who are prepared to examine the very nature of their power and reassess how to go forward with a shared power.

So, for example — and this could happen — if people reelect Donald Trump, that’s a statement that this country is going to keep going down the same road or worse, because that man is a symbol of hatred, division, etc. in this country. If the United States of America reelects him, that’s a signal to this country and the rest of the world that we’re not serious about this. 

If the country elects Joe Biden, the danger would be what Martin Luther King tried to warn us against, in the Letter From the Birmingham Jail, where he said that the problem for Black people in this country is not the White Citizens Council, it’s not the Ku Klux Klan, it’s moderate white people who keep talking about ‘Now is not the season.’

I’m gonna vote for Joe Biden, but only because he’s running against Donald Trump, who I think is a fascist. He’s a danger to democracy. But the danger of a person like Joe Biden is that Joe Biden will take these moderate positions and that becomes a pathway to pacification as opposed to a pathway to significant change.

Q: So, what’s the answer?

Fuller: The problem is I don’t know the answer. I’ll say that up-front. There’s no single “if you do this.” The question is do we have the will to fight something that is deeply ingrained in the very nature of the society. And are we truly prepared to rethink the institutional arrangements that make up the society.

If you take the police as an example, I’ve said there’s a lot of commonality in the arguments between the police union and the teachers union. If you say you’ve got some issues with the way the public school system works, people say you’re against public education. If you say you’ve got a problem with police putting knees on people’s necks and killing them, and (that) it needs to be changed, they say you’re against public safety.

Because the assumption we start with is that the institutional arrangements are OK. What they’re saying is we don’t want to see any significant change in the power relationships, but we would be OK with certain modifications that leave the power intact. When you start talking about radically changing that structure, you’re talking about impacting people’s economic wherewithal.

Q: You raise concerns about poverty and income inequality. Do you ever consider that some business leaders, many of whom are allies in the parental choice movement, have contributed to that by, for example, moving jobs from cities to suburbs and overseas, taking money offshore to avoid taxes and so on?

Fuller: I try to be as brutally honest to myself as I can possibly be. And one of the things I’ve said over and over again is if you fight for social justice in this country for five minutes, you have to be willing to live in a sea of contradictions. So the question you raised is an interesting one, that the way business functions is part of the problem. I don’t disagree with that. But when you’re out here fighting like this and you’re trying to find allies, you sometimes sit down with people whose world view you don’t necessarily share. With the things I’ve been fighting for most of my professional life, particularly when it comes to parent choice, I had to find allies where allies existed. And they’re not necessarily supporting parent choice for the same reason as I am.

Q: Speaking of contradictions. You are highly critical of the teachers union (as its leaders are of you). But there are issues on which you have common cause, for example on raising the minimum wage to $15. Can you elaborate?

Fuller: There are things that the union and I agree on. People think I’m anti-union. I’m not anti-union. I’m anti-what the union does when they do things I think are not in the interest of kids and families I care about.

I’m really clear I’m a staunch supporter of public education. I just don’t think the systems we have to deliver it are necessarily working for a lot of kids. The philosophical distinction I make between the idea of public education and the system that delivers it gets lost in the conversation.

I’ve always supported parent choice as opposed to school choice. My objective was to give low-income and working-class parents some of the power that those of us with money have. I’ve said it over and over again. If you live in America and you’ve got money, you’ve got choice.

There’s no public policy ever seen that only has an upside. Where I’ve evolved over time is clearly understanding that if you take taxpayer money, there are certain requirements you must meet, and one of them should be, you cannot choose what kids you want to take. You have a choice, you can get in the program or not. But if you choose to be in the Milwaukee parental choice program, then you have to take all kids.

Q: What will your legacy be?

Fuller: I don’t believe in legacies. I really don’t care about that. I do hope, obviously, that I’ve impacted some people’s lives and that their lives are better by virtue of some of the work I’ve done. I hope that some of the ideas that I’ve fought for along with others will survive, but in a modified form. I don’t think things should stay stagnant.

I realize I’ve not done enough. I’m not saying I individually should have changed society. But whatever part of it I had, I didn’t do enough. Because, when I look at the conditions of our people, it’s with a combination of pain and rage. Because I see so much suffering. And I think the suffering is going to be worse on the other side of this pandemic.

What I’m saying as I look at the next stage of my life is there are a lot of phenomenal young leaders in the city of Milwaukee. And my role is not to be talking about my legacy. My role is how do I support them.

Howard Fuller

Education: North Division High School, Milwaukee; Carroll College, Western Reserve, Marquette University.

Career: Director, Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University; superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools; director, Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services; dean of general education, Milwaukee Area Technical College; secretary, Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations.

Activism: Civil rights activist; a leader in the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, during which he took the name Owusu Sadaukai; co-founder of short-lived Malcolm X Liberation University.

Quote: “We have to look more deeply at the entire structure on which this country has been built. And … one of the foundations of that entire structure is racism.”

Contact Annysa Johnson at anjohnson@jrn.com or 414-224-2061. Follow her on Twitter at @JSEdbeat. And join the Journal Sentinel conversation about education issues at www.facebook.com/groups/WisconsinEducation.

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