Howard Fuller: More diversity needed for ed reform to be sustainable

redefinED staff

by Ron Matus and Travis Pillow

While some ed reform and parental choice organizations are working hard to increase diversity, there still aren’t enough people of color in leadership positions, says longtime parental choice activist Howard Fuller. And unless that and related concerns are addressed, the ed reform movement could be on shaky ground.

“The other thing that we have to do on that score is how we go into communities, and the discussions that we have with the people in those communities,” Fuller told redefinED, describing recent discussions he had with a cross-section of African Americans in New Orleans about ed reform. “And the thing that kept coming across clearly, no matter who I talked to was, we feel like this has been done to us and not with us. We have got to change that kind of idea about ed reform. And if we don’t, I’m worried about the long-term sustainability.”

Here is a mini-index of highlighted excerpts from an interview with Dr. Fuller about his book, “No Struggle, No Progress.”

On clearing up misconceptions about what brought him to his position on parental choice 

The reason I started out (the book) with the meeting with President Bush – other than shock value – was, it really did explain … this man is sitting down talking to me. He really thinks he knows me, but he doesn’t know me. And all kinds of people think they know me, but they don’t really know me … I really don’t worry a lot about clearing up misperceptions. But what I really did want to do was to tell my own story in my own way, and whatever comes of that, fine.

On not knowing much about Milton Friedman until he became a voucher supporter 

I actually got in a debate with Milton Friedman at a dinner in honor of Milton Friedman … He didn’t agree with me that it should be focused on low-income parents, because he believed in universal vouchers, which I will never support. It is true, I really did not come to it from the free-market standpoint. For me, it has always been an issue of social justice, and so that means that the framework that I use to look at it is probably very different.

On diversity in the education reform movement 

We have to have more high-performing schools and networks of high-performing schools led by people of color. And then within TFA and KIPP and all of this, we’ve got to have more people of color. I do think that (Wendy Kopp of Teacher for America and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin of KIPP) and all the people in KIPP and TFA have actually done that … There’s a lot more people of color in both those organizations. We still have not done the second part of this, and that is to have a significant number of high-performing schools and networks of schools led by people of color. We have simply not done well on that, nor have we done well on having more people of color in power positions, within some of our charter organizations in particular.

On giving parents greater control of the education reform movement 

They have to own this. But if they have to own it, we have to make sure they feel good about what it is they’re owning. Not only, therefore, do we have to talk about diversity. We have to talk about power. Constantly, you’ve got to increase people’s power to control their own destiny. As our schools and our reform effort evolves, how people participate and what level of power they have is something we’re going to have to address.

On why publicly funded private school choice makes sense – even though it did not exist to help him attend Catholic schools as a child 

At one point in time, we didn’t have a Pell Grant because people said, “If you want to go to colleges you ought to be able to do it on your own.” But some enlightened group of individuals said, “You know what, in order for people who don’t have resources to be able to have access to these great schools, we need to create a Pell Grant.” The last I heard, a Pell Grant is, like, government money that you can use to take to religious schools. I think we made that change because we said it would be good public policy to be able to make sure that our low-income people in this country could gain access … Why can’t we make that policy decision at the elementary and secondary level?

On the definition of public education 

Public education is a concept – an idea that we want the public to be educated. The system that we created to make that happen was not created by God.

On debating former Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama on whether vouchers constitute a “distraction” from the struggle to improve public schools 

It’s distraction, unless you’re poor. If you’re poor and you lack resources, it’s not a distraction, because it impacts you and your kids … Rather than see that as a distraction, (Obama) and others ought to see it as a part of a three-sector approach to reforming education in America, because you’ve got a private sector that has to be a part of the solution to the educational crisis that we have in this country.

On vouchers for the middle class 

I could envision a program that would use a model like the earned-income tax credit, where you say we’ll have a sliding scale, on the income basis. Now, there’s got to be a ceiling. There’s a point at which you’re not going to get any government money. I don’t understand why someone like me would get a voucher. That’s ludicrous. … Even with a sliding scale, the poorest people have to get the full benefit … It’s my belief that if you do not focus on the needs and interests of poor people, that they will get lost in the conversation.

On comparing the parental choice movement to a “rescue mission” for children in struggling schools 

I have a Harriet Tubman view of the world. Harriet Tubman got up every day and said, “I want to end slavery, but in the meantime, I’m going to rescue every slave that I can.” I get up every day saying, “I want the whole system to get better.” But in the meantime, I have a responsibility to rescue every single kid that I can.

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