Q&A with Howard Fuller

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Howard Fuller

Howard Fuller

As superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991-95, Howard Fuller was a vocal advocate of charter schools and clashed with the teachers’ union over his desire to close and re-staff failing schools. Fuller was the first person with little education experience to head a major urban school system. He now chairs the Washington, D.C.,-based Charter School Leadership Council and spoke to writer Alejandra Cerna Rios while in town recently.

There’s been a lot of opposition to Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 plan, which would include new charters and contract schools. What’s the best way to get people to support an idea?

It’s hard for me to give advice, not knowing the situation in Chicago. But many times organized opposition doesn’t reflect an entire community’s view. It reflects the view of organizations and individuals who are involved in coming out against something. If the change represents a significant power shift, you’re going to have opposition. That is not an indication of whether an idea is worthy or not. You have to examine what it is people are trying to do and whether it has value.

Mayor Richard Daley invited businesses to sponsor new schools. Would it be better to limit applicants to educators and non-profits?

In the situation that [public education] is in, you need to open it up to all kinds of possibilities, and judge who is allowed to open schools based on how well they meet criteria that are set.

What about expertise in education?

If you’ve got any sense, you surround yourself with people who have expertise that you don’t. When it comes to learning, some of the cutting-edge ideas come from outside education, from people engaged in organizational theory, how people learn and transfer information. But clearly, you do need people who understand teaching, learning and curriculum.

What does the political climate look like for charter schools nationally?

Charter school people have to realize that there is organized resistance. Teachers unions and other people who have historically controlled education are not in love with the idea that there’s going to be other people involved in the enterprise.

Talk about the American Federation of Teachers study that found kids in some charters performed worse than those in public schools.

Many charters look horrible in large part because they’re getting students who are way behind. But those of us who believe in charters have to understand that we’ve got to get students up to grade level. We created the movement making the argument that we could do that, so we can’t now say it’s too hard.

Some people are skeptical of relying on market forces to improve education.

As a superintendent, every day I signed documents where people made money from school systems, whether it was for roofs, tests or pencils. So we should not act as if the traditional school system is devoid of contact with the market.

But the items you just mentioned are tangible commodities.

Right. What I’m saying is that those forces have been a part of the traditional system for a very long time. The only people in America who are forced to have their children stay in schools that do not work are low-income and working-class people. So from my standpoint, it’s not a market idea, it’s a social justice idea.

What are some strategies a district should use to get parents to have faith in the system?

You try to involve people but you also have to be willing to say, I’ve listened to you but I don’t agree, and from my perspective, as the one who’s making the decision, this is a better way to go. Then go back and try to involve those people who disagreed.

Especially the people whose children are involved.

Exactly. Don’t just say “Well, hey, you disagree with me, and I won, so tough.” I made this decision, I understand that you all disagree, now let’s talk about your being a part of making this new thing work.