When Howard Fuller hears criticisms of fellow school choice advocate Betsy DeVos, he may hear echoes from his own past.
Before he became superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, Fuller had called for breaking up the school district and helped organize parents in favor of a school voucher program. He had never taught in public schools. The state Legislature had to pass a law waiving a requirement that school district leaders have three years of classroom experience. In his memoir, No Struggle No Progress, he recounts how the NAACP held a press conference denouncing him.
He was an outsider, advocating for systematic change. But he also knew that when he became leader of the local public education system, he would have to care for every child. On a new podcast with Education Next, he says he hopes DeVos will do the same as U.S. Education Secretary.
“The reality of it is, when you go into those kind of positions, you have to deal with issues that are on your plate,” he says, adding: “Betsy does care about trying to change the system, but in my mind that doesn’t mean that she’s going to get in there and say ‘I don’t care about what happens to children who are attending schools in traditional systems.'”
DeVos has faced attacks for her support of school vouchers, her lack of experience in traditional public schools and an agenda that, supposedly, would dismantle public education. But Fuller says those who support parental choice also want to help children who attend public schools.
“I’m a supporter of parent choice. I’m also a supporter of trying to make sure that the traditional public education system works well for kids,” he says. “I believe that poor parents and low-income parents ought to have choice, as those of us with money have. I think anybody who cares about kids, you want to make sure that the traditional system works well, also.”
Fuller said he counts DeVos as a friend, and the two worked together when he served as chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and she served as chairman of the American Federation for Children.
That doesn’t mean he and DeVos agree on everything. Fuller has consistently opposed universal vouchers, criticized the school choice movement for neglecting the communities it hopes to serve, and chided Republican politicians who support parental choice in education while championing other policies he opposes.
But he recounts a little-publicized political fight where DeVos was in his corner. When BAEO pushed for stronger testing and accountability requirements in Louisiana’s private school voucher program, he says, DeVos and AFC lent their political muscle.
“I know that she believed that there needed to be accountability measures, and was pushing back against [then-Gov. Bobby] Jindal, who didn’t want accountability measures in the system at that time,” Fuller says.
Yes, DeVos’ role in the school choice movement is more complicated than her critics let on. Her confirmation hearing in the Senate is set for Wednesday. Among prospective members of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet, she’s expected be a top target for Democrats‘ opposition. It will be interesting to see whether the more nuanced truth comes to light.