Forty years ago, Howard Fuller was an angry young man working as a community organizer for an anti-poverty program in North Carolina. He had an Afro, wore a dashiki, toyed with Marxism, and spoke disparagingly of racial integration.
He went by the name Owusu Sadaukai, which means “one who leads his people” in Kiswahili. He visited Africa and briefly took up arms with Communist-backed “freedom fighters” trying to overthrow the Portuguese colonial government of Mozambique. Back in the states, he founded a blacks-only university, as well as African Liberation Day, which for several years in the 1970s drew thousands of marchers in a variety of U.S. cities.
Today, Fuller, 71, lives in Milwaukee and is a nationally known leader in the education reform movement. And while once he was a darling of the left, today he’s a hero to conservatives for challenging the teachers unions and championing the school choice movement.
Dissertations and books have been written about Fuller’s remarkable life, and he was featured in the emotionally charged documentary about failing inner-city schools, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s been showered with enough awards to paper a wall, including four honorary doctorates.
He once debated Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, telling the future president bluntly, “If you think [school reform] can be done within the existing system, you are dreaming. … I’m going to tell you right now that if you are going to change public education in America, you’re going to have to do something about the teachers union contract.”
Still, a couple of things haven’t changed.
For one, Howard Fuller is still angry.
“How can you not be angry?” he demands heatedly as we sit in his office at the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, which he founded. Sunshine streams through the windows of the ivy-covered building on the Marquette University campus and catches the sparks in his eyes.
“People are suffering — people are really suffering!” says the tall, spare man who’s still as lean as he was back in the day when he played basketball for Carroll College.
“We all ought to be angry. The objective conditions for poor people in this city have gotten worse, not better.”
Fuller still believes in the concept of social justice, that the “haves” of this nation owe the “have-nots” help to overcome hundreds of years of discrimination and poverty.
The best way to do that, Fuller believes, is through education — which too many schools in Milwaukee and elsewhere are failing to provide for low-income children.
And while this former superintendent of Milwaukee’s public schools is famous for his criticism of the school district, he admits that the best solution to the problems of educating poor and minority students still eludes him.
Fuller is on the front lines. He is chairman of the board of the CEO Leadership Academy, a charter high school in the Washington Park neighborhood.
The school began as a private voucher school launched by a group of black clergymembers; CEO stands for Clergy for Educational Options.
It has 194 students, all minorities. Last year, 57 percent of its graduates went on to four-year colleges or universities. It operates not under the auspices of the Milwaukee Public Schools, but under the City of Milwaukee. It has a longer school day than Milwaukee public high schools, a lower student-teacher ratio, and its students wear uniforms.
Fuller teaches there. He grades papers. He takes students with him as he flies around the country to help other communities with their schools.
But in terms of student achievement, CEO Leadership Academy is not where he wants it to be. For example, its 10th graders scored “proficient” or “advanced” only half as often as public high school students on the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Exam.
Fuller is deeply disappointed.
“We are not a great school,” he says and sighs. “We are trying to become one. Every board member, every teacher cares deeply, but we’re not getting the job done.”
It can be done, Fuller knows, because he is living proof.
Howard Fuller was born in Shreveport, La., and raised by his mother and grandmother.
“My father was not in my life,” he says. “I met him once, when I was 30. I was giving a speech somewhere, and afterward he came up and introduced himself and said he was my father.”
Fuller pauses, looks out the window.
“It meant nothing to me.”
“I owe everything to my mother and grandmother,” he says. The family moved to Milwaukee’s Hillside Housing Project when Fuller was 6.
“I tell the kids in my school, ‘I ran the same streets that you are running, so don’t try to fool me!’” he says with a grin.
His mother folded towels in an industrial laundry, working on her feet eight hours a day, until she got a job as a ward clerk in the Milwaukee County Hospital. Fuller believes all the lint she inhaled at the laundry contributed to the lung condition that killed her at age 88.
His mother and grandmother believed fervently in education, he remembers. “There was never any question about me completing high school.” He went to Carroll College in Waukesha and became Carroll’s first black graduate.
He earned a master’s degree in sociology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland before heading for North Carolina and a 10-year stint as what one newspaper called a “controversial, young activist.”
It was during those years that he became involved with a group of black students at Duke University who complained that what they were learning at Duke was “completely irrelevant” to their lives.
So they founded Malcolm X Liberation University, which operated for three years before succumbing to a lack of money.
Still, the memory of their youthful idealism makes Fuller smile even now. “That ‘young me’ helped produce the ‘old me’ that’s still fighting today,” he says.
In the late 1970s, Fuller moved back to Milwaukee. “I had a responsibility to the neighborhood where I grew up,” he says. He sold insurance, then got a job at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
In 1982, Democratic Gov. Tony Earl — “Yes, there actually was a governor before Tommy Thompson,” he jokes — tapped Fuller to become secretary of the state’s Department of Employee Relations.
While Earl is the politician whom Fuller respects the most, he also grew to like Thompson, who as head of the Assembly Republicans was known as “Dr. No.”
“I met with Tommy and told him, ‘Look, I know you are probably going to vote down everything I propose, but before you do that, I’m going to come to your office and explain what I’m doing, so at least you know what you’re voting “No” on.’”
After leaving state government, Fuller returned to Milwaukee to become dean of Milwaukee Area Technical College and earn a doctorate in education at Marquette.
He also resumed a role he’d had in the early 1980s: that of the Milwaukee Public Schools’ most vocal critic.
He chided the district unmercifully for spending the most money per student of any district in the state and getting the worst results in student achievement.
He opposed desegregation efforts, arguing that instead of busing black children to white schools, the district should focus on improving black neighborhood schools.
Desegregation implies “that anything that is all-black is inferior. I don’t think that in order for black people to be successful, you have to be with whites.
“When integration started in Milwaukee,” he adds, “the whole thing was done on the backs of the black kids. Black schools were closed, blacks students forced to ride buses everyday, all to benefit white kids.”
From the start, Fuller supported the controversial Milwaukee school voucher program, which lets poor children attend private schools by taking the state’s portion of the city’s public school aid money and letting it “follow the child” to private schools.
Although now considered the most successful school voucher program in the nation, the program is derided for its supposed harm to the public schools, both by depriving the public schools of money and by cherry-picking students.
The program, which began in 1990, probably would not have been approved by the state Legislature without the efforts of Fuller and then-state-Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee). They helped form a coalition of Milwaukee Democratic legislators who worked with Republicans to enact the program.
Fuller was an unlikely candidate to lead the Milwaukee Public Schools, so unlikely that his appointment in 1991 wouldn’t have been possible without action by the state Legislature to waive the requirement that superintendents have at least three years of teaching experience. Since then, other districts have hired “outsiders” like successful businesspeople or retired generals as superintendents.
Fuller’s four-year tenure was, he says, “the most difficult job I’ve ever had in my life. Also, the best.
“I was running on adrenalin for four straight years,” he says. “I felt so deeply about trying to help those kids.”
The concepts Fuller advocated as superintendent — site-based management, empowering principals to hire and fire, closing failing schools and giving parents a voice in school management — are standard today in the reform movement. But 20 years ago, they were very new ideas, and they put Fuller into collision-mode with the powerful Milwaukee teachers union.
By 1995, when a union-backed slate of school board members was elected, he was tired. “I refused to die a death of a thousand cuts,” he says.
One good thing that happened during those tumultuous four years: He met his wife, fellow education reformer Deborah McGriff.
After leaving MPS, he joined the Marquette faculty and founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning. In 2000, he launched a nationwide coalition, the Black Alliance for Education Options.
It is difficult to overstate Fuller’s contributions to Milwaukee, to the lives of its black residents, and to the nationwide education reform movement.
For Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, Fuller has been both a teacher and an inspiration. Caire first met Fuller almost 20 years ago, when Caire was working for the Department of Public Instruction. He later worked in Washington, D.C., for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, another Fuller-founded organization.
Caire said he learned important lessons from Fuller. For instance, just as Fuller’s fight for school choice allied him with Republicans, Caire also has found friends on the right in his struggle to overcome liberal resistance to his proposed Madison Preparatory Academy.
“People say ‘What happened to Howard? Has he become a Republican?’” Caire says with a laugh. “I tell them ‘No, he’s not conservative at all.’ But as he taught me, in politics, the lines start to blur after awhile. You take support where you can find it.”
Caire says Fuller also inspired him to keep going in the face of setbacks. “Howard’s been at it for a long, long time. If he can find the strength to keep fighting, so can I.”
Fuller is consulting on the effort to rebuild New Orleans’ school system through charter schools. He is also exploring the potential of a teaching method called “blended education,” which enables students to learn at their own pace via personal computers, with the teacher acting partly as a facilitator instead of a lecturer.
And while his life’s work has focused on improving education for black children, his efforts have benefited white as well as minority students.
Trying to put his views in a historical context, Fuller says, “The civil rights movement took place at a time when the United States was trying to teach the rest of the world that democracy was better than communism,” he says. For that lesson to be true, the country had to stop systematically oppressing people of color.
“From a political standpoint, the interests of white people and black people converged at that moment in time.”
His hope for a second convergence — of the sincere desire of everyone of every race to improve our nation’s schools — is what keeps Howard Fuller fighting.