Howard Fuller: One of the Most Powerful Educators in America

Takepart.comNovember 7, 2012

Civil rights leader Kenneth Clark once said to Howard Fuller, “Did my work even make a difference?”

Like Clark, who was instrumental in the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in 1954, education advocate Howard Fuller has asked himself this same question.

“If you really care and you live long enough,” Fuller, 71, says, you look back over your body of work and wonder what impact it has made.

More: 'Teached' Film Series Cracks Open L.A.'s School-to-Prison Pipeline

Looking at Clark and Fuller’s bodies of work, it is not hard to see that both have made a major impact on education in America.

For the last three decades, Howard Fuller has fought for education equality and school choice. He served as the superintendent of Milwaukee schools where he was a strong proponent of the voucher program, and is a Distinguished Professor of Education and the Founder and Director of Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. The Institute empowers low-income families to choose the best education options for their children.

Fuller is also the is the co-founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, an organization that seeks to increase access to high-quality educational options for black children.

In a recent conversation, he stressed the urgency of reforming our education system. The problem, he says, is “there’s a lot of activity around protecting the status quo.”

In spite of the rhetoric and talk about reform, Howard feels strongly that we don’t, at the deepest level, “have a commitment to solve the educational problems in this country for our poorest children, a disproportionate number of whom happen to be children of color.”

Howard Fuller and students in Milwaukee. (Photo c/o Howard Fuller)

Although we talk about our children being important, he explains, “The reality is that the interests of the adults are more important.”

While Fuller is not anti-union, his views differ with the teachers’ unions, specifically regarding how they function and their overall impact on kids.

“I’m not a person that believes that what you need to do in order to make change is to get rid of unions … but I am someone who understands that in order to make significant differences inside traditional districts, that you have to do something about the level of power and control that teacher unions have.”

Because of his strong viewpoints about the “status quo” and his movement towards school choice, Fuller has also at times been categorized as being against public education.

He says he does not accept this assumption.

“I believe that one of the things we have to do in this country is create an alternative structure to the existing traditional public school structure. I don’t think that’s an issue of being opposed to public education.”

I look into the eyes of these kids and I just want them to have a decent shot at life.

Fuller makes a distinction between public education and the system that delivers public education. “I believe that you can have a variety of different delivery systems to make sure the public is educated,” he says.

The delivery systems he is a proponent of include, charter schools and a push toward blended learning. Fuller is on the board of a charter high school, CEO Leadership Academy. He is also a fan of vouchers and opportunity scholarships “which present the possibility of a different financial arrangement for how people can access schools.”

You can’t, he explains, “have a single structure that controls education.”

Howard Fuller has given his life to education and like Kenneth Clark, he has always fought against the status quo. If you ask him why he's kept fighting, he'll tell you, “I don’t know how else to live.”

It's simple, he says, “I look into the eyes of these kids and I just want them to have a decent shot at life. I have no right not to fight and try and make this situation better.”

Related Stories on TakePart:

The Parent Trigger: Rebellious Moms Make History and Take Over a Failing School

Academy for Global Citizenship: A Green Charter School Sprouts in Chicago

A California Teacher’s Secret to Raising Grades and Morale

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee |