In 1969, Howard Fuller founded Malcolm X Liberation University in North Carolina, based on the principles of Black Power and Pan-Africanism. Forty years later, he coined the term “dance of the lemons” for his star turn in the anti-union, pro-privatization film Waiting for “Superman.” Does that dramatic change constitute political development or selling out?
Fuller’s goal in his new book, No Struggle, No Progress, is to convince us that there is a smooth, principled path from his militant, revolutionary past to his present position as a national promoter of vouchers and his close association with Walton, Broad, and other right-wing foundations. In reality, the book reveals a drastic rupture with that past. In the most disheartening way, Fuller trades on the respect he earned as a legitimate leader in the black community to push the free market approach to K-12 education and alliances with the very right-wing power brokers who are leading the charge to destroy low-income communities of color.
He describes his work in the “parental choice movement” (a euphemism for privatization that includes vouchers and charter schools) as “more of a rescue mission than a fight for broad societal change,” with the goal of sending more students to college. Although this may sound well intentioned, the impact of his work has been to help dismantle public school systems and turn public education over to the private sector.
Fuller opens his autobiography boasting of his friendship with President George W. Bush. “I connected with the dude. . . . I found him quite likable.” This affection led to Fuller assisting Bush’s election by joining his education policy and speechwriting advisory team. He then contrasts his friendship with Bush with his once-militant background to explain why he’s difficult to categorize and had to tell his own story.
But the anecdote tells more than Fuller intended. All change-makers understand the need for unusual allies. But we also understand the need to call out the sources of oppression. Silence in the face of Bush’s role in the suffering in the black community is complicity.
In the first half of the book, Fuller describes his early organizing in defense of black communities in Ohio, North Carolina, and other Southern states. He also organized solidarity with African movements against colonialism, connecting African struggles to black liberation in the United States. After moving to Milwaukee, he became a leader in the 1981 movement there against the police murder of a young man named Ernest Lacy.
In 1991, the school board chose Fuller as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). For the first few years, his work as superintendent was mixed. He instituted a “school to work” program that brought forth some new ways to approach teaching and learning.
At the same time, he was contributing to privatization through his support of the first voucher program, which began in Milwaukee in 1990. He also invited one of the first for-profit charter school companies, the Edison Project, to operate two MPS schools and proposed the outsourcing of programs to Education Alternatives Inc., a company owned and operated by John Walton, son and heir of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Fuller invited RAND Institute researcher Paul T. Hill to speak to MPS administrators. Hill’s 1995 RAND report, “Reinventing Public Education,” details how to replace “the entire existing public education governance system” with a contracting system, making public education profit-driven.
Despite these actions, Fuller continued to be seen as a progressive educator; colleagues and fellow education activists were reluctant to change their perceptions of him, given his history. He keynoted the 1992 National Coalition of Education Activists conference; his talk received enthusiastic applause.
By 1995, however, he resigned as MPS superintendent, following a school board election in which four teacher union-supported candidates won. Following his resignation, Fuller strengthened his alliances with the privatization movement. With the help of generous funders, including the Walton Foundation, Fuller founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) in 1999 to increase African American support nationally for the school voucher movement. Fuller boasts of the BAEO’s successes in what seems to be a “Southern strategy,” with chapters in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
Fuller does not come clean about the fact that Milwaukee’s voucher program, now approaching its 25th year, is a failed program. Even by the measures of the privatizers, math and reading scores lag behind those of the city’s public schools. The Milwaukee voucher program started with 300 students. In the beginning, despite its weaknesses, it was clearly designated for low-income families. There are now more than 25,000 students, many from middle- and even upper-income families. With the recent re-election of Scott Walker and the strengthening of the Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature, a “voucher in every backpack” has become the right-wing clarion call, encouraging Fuller to push forward on a national campaign.
Given his aspirations to bring vouchers to every state in the country, it’s not a surprise that Fuller also works closely with the Bradley Foundation, which has funded BAEO from the beginning. The Bradley Foundation has been a major supporter of the Tea Party movement and of ALEC, the group behind Stand Your Ground and voter restriction legislation, among a slew of regressive policies.
Fuller justifies his approach by explaining it is based on the concept of “interest convergence,” which he says he learned from the late Harvard professor Derek Bell. “Black people in this country have made progress only when our interests converged with the interest of people in power,” Fuller explains.
This is a significant misuse of Bell’s work. Bell, one of the originators of critical race theory, was talking about the centrality of racism in the United States and the difficulty in dismantling it—not the efficacy of opportunistically allying with rich reactionaries in the name of “saving black children.” Bell’s point was that Brown vs. the Board of Education happened during a brief period of time when black struggles for civil rights in the United States fit in with ruling class goals, including a need to look more progressive to emerging Third World countries during the Cold War. When the needs of the power structure and the white base changed, progress for African Americans stalled and reversed. That perspective is a far cry from Fuller’s efforts to manipulate legitimate anger about the racism in our public schools to enlist African American families in replacing public schools with private ones. His insistence on separating education from the context in which children, their families, and teachers operate—the unbelievable growth in inequality, the destruction of cities, the lack of jobs and affordable housing—make clear that he is not talking about addressing children’s futures in any meaningful way.
As we saw in Waiting for “Superman,” one of Fuller’s main political targets is teachers’ unions. At a 2010 KIPP school summit, Fuller compared teacher unions and their leaders to Gov. George Wallace standing “at the door trying to keep our kids from getting in.” He does not hesitate to berate public school teachers while telling Teach For America enrollees they are in the forefront of the “new civil rights movement.”
If it weren’t for Howard Fuller’s early history as a progressive education activist, and the way he uses that to try to build support for privatization, this would be just another self-congratulatory memoir. But under the circumstances, No Struggle, No Progress is an insult to those who have fought in the past and an affront to those fighting today for social justice, and to all those who continue to speak truth to power.