As head of Milwaukee public schools from 1991-95, Howard Fuller presided over the first city voucher experiment in the United States. In his 1995 resignation letter, he wrote that "powerful forces conspire to protect careers, contracts, and current practices before tending to the interests of our children." He is one of the first prominent African-American leaders to support school choice. The founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, he spoke recently with the Monitor.
On the need for reform:
The current system works well for many kids; but it does not work well for a significant number of kids. Many are poor and children of color. For these kids ... there is a crisis. No matter what these people say, no matter how good the economy is or was ... there are a lot of people who are not participating in this economy and who cannot read. We cannot rest until we can save every child.
On why public schools fail many poor children:
I did my dissertation on the seeming inability of the school system to educate poor black children. The problem isn't a lack of knowledge about what to do. The problem is ultimately the political will to do what we know needs to be done.... [P]oor parents don't have the power to influence the system. It's both an issue of race and class.
On how options will help:
Vouchers help create a competitive environment. They give low-income parents a way to find additional options for their kids. If you create a system where dollars follow students, you put competitive pressure on a system to change. This represents a change in who controls the distribution of the money inside the system....
What's significant [about the Milwaukee choice experiment] is that for the first time, parents have the right to ask questions. We're at the beginning of helping people to become informed consumers, but you can never get there unless you start. People are beginning to understand that they have a right to ask questions, and they can choose.
On high-stakes testing:
Testing is good, because you begin to talk about consequences. The problem is that the only people now being held accountable are the kids. If they fail the test, the kids suffer; but their teachers ... do not. Also, it's unrealistic to think that a standardized test alone will tell you what kids know.
On the future:
In order for a school to be public, it need not be run by the government. We need to redefine what we mean by public education and open up the process of who can deliver public education in America. In the future, the distinction between public and private will be much more blurred. Some of the lines we have drawn will not be as defined. And that could help all of us create better learning environments for kids.