Christensen: Howard Fuller - From Malcolm X to school vouchers

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2014 

Howard Fuller is one of the few politically bilingual people among us.

Fuller was a legendary community organizer, who gave many North Carolina black leaders their start and counts Malcolm X among his chief influences. Conservatives once tried to run Fuller out of the state.

He is also among the nation’s leading advocates for vouchers to allow low-income families to send their children to private schools. That cause led to a friendship with the Walton family of Walmart fame, placed him on President George W. Bush’s education advisory committee, and last week had him standing in front of the North Carolina Legislative Building with Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Fuller, 73, calls it the “interest convergence theory,” in that you choose your allies based on your interests. So he joins with conservative Republicans on certain issues, such as school vouchers for underprivileged children, but not other issues.

Community organizer

Fuller, a Milwaukee resident and professor at Marquette University, spent a decade in North Carolina. Hired by an anti-poverty program in 1965, he was an aggressive organizer, helping give voice to mothers in Durham housing projects, Duke University students seeking a black studies program, Carolina students supporting a cafeteria workers’ strike and hospital workers wanting to organize in Durham. He became a leading target for conservatives such as Jesse Helms and Jim Gardner, who branded him a radical.

At one point, Fuller’s politics did become radical, and he traveled to Africa to help in the African liberation movement and got caught between Portuguese soldiers and guerrillas fighting for the independence of Mozambique. An autobiography of his life is due out this summer.

Reforming public schools

Fuller returned home to Milwaukee where he eventually rose to become superintendent of public schools in 1991. But Fuller was frustrated with his effort to reform the public schools, particularly to help children from poor or working class neighborhoods.

He became a vocal proponent of charter schools and voucher programs. When he left his job as superintendent, Fuller founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. In 2000, he formed a nonprofit called the Black Alliance for Education Options, which has chapters across the country fighting for parental choice.

Last week, he was in Raleigh for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina to push for more vouchers for low-income children. There were about 5,500 applications for the 2,400 available scholarships, which are worth up to $4,200 each.

“I came to this issue through a whole series of community struggles over time in Milwaukee,” Fuller said.

Poor need choices, too

“Many people felt if we could just get our schools integrated it would take care of the education problem,” Fuller said. “As it turned out, it did not.”

He said vouchers are not a panacea, but they do offer parents a choice.

“You have some good schools and some bad schools that have been created and are using the program,” he said. “In my way of looking at the world, choice has a value in and of itself. If every school is not a great school, that doesn’t mean you should not have choice.”

He said studies have shown improved graduation rates among students using the vouchers, and an improvement in math and reading, but not other subjects.

Fuller said while he supports means-tested vouchers, he would never support universal vouchers, a position that puts him at odds with some of his allies.

“I got in it to give low-income and working-class people the opportunity to choose,” Fuller said. “Those of us with money already have that.”

He believes the parent choice movement is growing across the country.

Fuller doesn’t believe the push for scholarship grants is anti-public education, but is simply another option for low-income parents.

“I just don’t think there ought to be an America where only those of us with money have the ability to choose,” Fuller said.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service