In 1998, at a luncheon in Chicago, former superintendent, activist and now-icon Howard Fuller was on an education panel with an up-and-coming state senator. Barack Obama told the audience that vouchers were a “distraction,” and said those who support them don’t want to tackle the difficulties of changing the “entire system.”
Fuller laments the spectacle of black leaders going toe to toe in public, but he did not shy from a retort. As he recalls in his just-released autobiography, “No Struggle, No Progress,” he answered from experience about teachers unions’ resistance to change, then lowered the boom:
“And you sit here and claim that we can make changes in the existing system? If you can do that, God bless you. But I’m going to tell you this. Those of us who are out there fighting are not going to wait for you to do that. We’re going to keep trying to find ways to help people whose kids are being undereducated, miseducated, not educated.”
Howard Fuller’s passion for parental choice is common knowledge in choice circles. He is arguably the best known and most revered figure in that realm. But thanks to his book, a wider swath of people will get a chance to meet him. Written with noted author Lisa Frazier Page, the book would compel even if school choice wasn’t such a hot topic; it chronicles an extraordinary American life. But it has the potential, too, of knocking a few more holes into the tired narratives about choice supporters and what motivates them.
Low-income parents are lining up in droves for alternatives to district schools, and one prominent Democrat after another is swinging towards them, including President Obama who, while still hung up on vouchers, wholeheartedly supports charter schools. The Dem divide is real, and as it grows, more rank-and-file Democrats will have second thoughts. Fuller’s story can hasten the process. Politically, he’s part of the same extended tribe, and for many folks that external validation makes all the difference.
It wasn’t until after he embraced vouchers in the late 1980s, Fuller notes, that he heard of economist Milton Friedman. Fuller’s views about education and everything else were forged in a different world: through his own humble upbringing by strong black women who found ways to get him the best education possible (including stints in Catholic schools); and in the tumult of the 1960s – in civil rights and Black Power, in protest marches and rent strikes.
It’s clear from every page that Fuller is motivated by love for “my people,” and for finding ways to right wrongs and uplift them. “No Struggle, No Progress” is brimming with passages that speak to his heart – passages like this one, where Fuller describes one of the Durham, N.C. neighborhoods he was assigned to help as a community organizer in the 1960s:
“Though I’d grown up in public housing and spent my earliest days in a poor southern community, I’d never seen poverty and neglect like this. Hayti, the largest neighborhood in my target area, sat in the heart of a major city, yet some areas still had dirt streets. Dirt streets! In the middle of town! That was incomprehensible to me. Shotgun shacks were everywhere, and some of them had no running water indoors. My heart hurt when I saw how my people were living and how they had accommodated themselves to survive under conditions that no human being should have to endure. Anger burned deep inside. But far from feeling overwhelmed, it made me even more determined to figure out how to change the condition.”
Early on, Fuller was captivated by another concept too: “maximum feasible participation.” Continue Reading →