Power to the pupil

Patrick Gibbons

What do Nevada public schools need to do if they want to do right by their minority and working-class kids?

A one-time black-nationalist community organizer and long-time education reformer will be in Las Vegas next month to speak directly to that question.

Dr. Howard Fuller, director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, is the former superintendent of Milwaukee schools, former head of the Milwaukee Department of Health and Human Services and also co-founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

He will speak at the Education Policy Summit 2010 at the Orleans Hotel, on Friday, March 19. The theme for the conference is: Success for Every Nevada Child. It is the second annual education summit hosted by the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Fuller sees education reform as essential for social justice and as the civil rights fight of the 21st Century.

"Freedom is illusory if you don't have the wherewithal to take advantage of it," he says.

Consequently, the mission of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, led by Fuller, is to "Support exemplary education options that transform learning for children, while empowering families, particularly low-income families, to choose the best options for their children."

That recurring emphasis on educational options in Fuller's career has made him one of America's leading advocates for genuine education opportunities. According to Encyclopedia.com, "He has dedicated his career to improving educational opportunities for low-income African-American children. He is nationally known as a proponent of programs that increase parents' choices for their children's education, such as charter schools and private school voucher programs."

"There is a fundamental issue confronting African Americans, and therefore all Americans," Fuller said in 2000 at a symposium hosted at his institute. "Parents without the power to make educational choices lack an indispensable tool for helping their children secure an effective education."

Fuller's involvement with the emerging Black Power movement in the 1960s followed graduate school and occurred while he worked as a community organizer in Durham, North Carolina. It was during that era that he worked with the African Liberation Movement and helped found Malcolm X Liberation University.

Today Fuller's orientation has changed. "Hollering at people and calling them names won't work. It doesn't change people's minds," he says. And while the Milwaukee teacher union was a constant thorn in the side of meaningful education reform during Fuller's leadership of Milwaukee schools, he recognizes that the union's job is to protect teachers' interest. Unfortunately, he notes, "organized interests are dealt with first and students' interests are not protected."

How will genuine, positive change come to public education? "If you think you will change education with more money or small reforms, that is just a pipe dream," Fuller says. "History has made that clear."

Instead, he argues, "people have to quit whining about the teachers union. They need to organize, fight for choice and struggle for quality schools." Otherwise, "kids are going to be left behind. The skills needed today are vastly different than years ago."

When Fuller was superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools in the early 1990s, he worked to restore school discipline, decentralize authority and school funding, and to strengthen curricula. He embraced charter schools and a new school-voucher program that offered low-income students the opportunity to attend the public or private school of their choice.

Today, the Milwaukee voucher program serves more than 22,000 low-income children, with 77 percent of the voucher recipients graduating high school — a graduation rate that is a full 12 percentage points higher than that of the traditional public schools in the district.

But vouchers, in and of themselves, are not the be-all and end-all for Howard Fuller. His goal, he says, is simply high-quality schools. "Vouchers have created good schools and bad schools," he says, acknowledging that people who oppose parental choice have genuine fears.

"We have to have an open mind with other people [who are] concerned about the negative effects of vouchers," Fuller counsels. Nevertheless, he believes parental choice remains essential.

"Choice is critical because the working class doesn't have a choice, and they need it," he says. "They need quality schools."

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.