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School founder Howard Fuller visits with students at the Milwaukee Collegiate Academy charter school.
School founder Howard Fuller visits with students at the Milwaukee Collegiate Academy charter school. Credit: Amadou Diallo for The Hechinger Report

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — At age 77, Howard Fuller strides along Center Street with the loping gait of a former standout basketball player while recalling the vibrant community of black homeowners and entrepreneurs that used to define this once-bustling stretch of Milwaukee’s North Side. “We had businesses and nice homes all around this area,” says Fuller, who grew up here.

A block dominated by houses with peeling paint and patched shingles gives way to the massive dull-brick facade of North Division High School, Fuller’s alma mater. The former Milwaukee schools superintendent and longtime school choice advocate pauses. “It’s hurtful to see what’s not happening here with these kids,” he says.

The school used to be a source of pride for the city’s black community, a stepping stone to middle-class achievement as its graduates went on to become doctors, businesspeople and win election to Congress. In 2016 not a single child at “North,” as locals call it, tested proficient in math according to the state’s education department.

Enrollment has declined from roughly 1,400 students in 1996 to about 350 students today, says the school’s principal, Keith Carrington. In a state that sends one out of every eight black men to prison, the highest rate in the country, this neighborhood bears a disproportionate brunt of the mass incarceration policy, with more African-American men from here locked up than from any other zip code in Milwaukee County.

“Where North is now is part of a conscious effort to sabotage black education,” Fuller says. He acknowledges that there are “well-meaning people in the building … teachers and administrators who have the kids’ best interests at heart.” But he also sees in the school’s decline a long history of white leaders, conservative and liberal, repeatedly asking black families to accept failure for their children.

As racial separation in U.S. schools becomes more pronounced in many places, and as hate crimes against minorities increase in schools and communities and the U.S. president defends white supremacists, Fuller takes issue with other education advocates and black leaders who say racial integration is the solution. “No matter what kind of [integration] plan you come up with, people with money are going to figure out how to take care of their kids,” he says. “What do you do in places like Milwaukee where white people simply aren’t going to opt in?”

“No matter what kind of [integration] plan you come up with, people with money are going to figure out how to take care of their kids.”

Fuller’s remedy? Schools led and controlled by black people. He’s built a long career out of advocating for the vehicles he believes are the black community’s best hope for self-determination: vouchers and charter schools.

Fuller’s stance on school choice has created unlikely alliances with deep-pocketed conservatives and has put him at odds with mainstream civil rights advocates, but his work is impacting a younger generation of black school leaders striving to create culturally relevant institutions for the students they serve. Fuller’s ideas revive a long-standing tradition of African-American educational self-reliance. From Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X, the notion that separate and equal is not only possible, but in some cases preferable, has been a rallying point for those who believe that black educators should be the ones designing and leading schools for black children.

Related: I got to choose private schools, but will vouchers really help other kids make it?

Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din, founder of the black-led Ember Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, first met Fuller a decade ago and calls him a mentor. “The seed that Fuller helped to plant … with his legacy of self-determination … is now starting to find fertile space,” he says of efforts by other black educators who have turned to the charter model to found schools.

Some research suggests that the number of black-led schools has been in decline since its peak in the 1990s. But the National Charter Collaborative, a nonprofit designed to create and support opportunities for charter school leaders of color, has to date identified more than 400 single-site schools in which people of color either lead the school and/or make up at least 30 percent of the board and leadership teams, according to CEO Kim Smith. The group has plans to grow those numbers. One of the primary challenges for black-led schools is simply to create awareness that they exist. “It sounds ridiculous 20 years after the charter movement started, but people have no clue that down the street, down the corner, there might be a [charter] school that’s led by a person of color.”

She credits Fuller as an inspirational figure, and has engaged him in an advisory role as the group seeks to develop a national network of funding and talent pipelines. “There’s been a significant amount of capital and funding poured into white-led charter organizations,” says Smith, who would like to see black-led schools become a greater part of the charter conversation.

For Smith, it’s a matter of making options available. And Fuller isn’t arguing that black children can’t do well in other types of schools. “I support any options that are well serving kids,” he says, adding that no option — district, charter or private — is inherently better for all black children everywhere. But if white people in power aren’t going to educate black kids, Fuller argues, it would be foolish not to “try to educate ourselves.”

Black schools for black children

It’s the first week of school at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, a charter high school Fuller founded in 2003 that’s housed in a low-slung concrete warehouse just a five-minute drive from the North Division campus. Inside, the walls of the commons area are covered with college pennants, and on the door of each classroom is a sign displaying the teacher’s alma mater, a collegiate emphasis typical of urban charter schools.

Milwaukee Collegiate Academy is housed in a former warehouse in the city’s North Side.
Milwaukee Collegiate Academy is housed in a former warehouse in the city’s North Side. Credit: Amadou Diallo for The Hechinger Report

Although he’s now retired from the school’s board, Fuller remains a regular presence at the school and displays an easy rapport with the students. Dropping in on an English class, he playfully admonishes two members of the football team about a recent lopsided loss. In a lobby lined with promotional posters featuring former students, he lingers over the images, recalling details about one graduate who has begun a professional career in Milwaukee, another who became the first in her family to attend college and a young woman who is currently struggling with the demands of early motherhood. As he recounts their triumphs and challenges, his passion for helping these kids move on to a life of options beyond poverty is evident.

Fuller’s charter school faces some of the same challenges as its district counterparts. Students enter with a range of academic preparedness — the school has no academic admissions requirements — and 94 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a national measure of poverty. Its students perform well below the Wisconsin average on standardized tests. Yet the school has a 97 percent graduation rate, according to the state’s education department, and its home page touts its sixth consecutive year with a 100 percent college acceptance rate for graduating seniors, with many of those offers coming from historically black colleges and universities in the South, like Alabama A&M, Grambling State and Texas Southern.

In those graduation and acceptance rates, Fuller sees the fruits of his vision for the black community in action: a school with a majority black board, educating black children in the neighborhood where they live, preparing them for successful lives.

Related: Should an urban school serving black and Hispanic students look like schools for affluent white kids?

While Fuller’s vision has been consistent, his methods have shifted dramatically over a long career. In the sixties he worked as a community organizer for Operation Breakthrough’s anti-poverty campaign in North Carolina. A few years later, after launching Malcolm X Liberation University with a Pan-African curriculum, he was actively raising funds for the armed liberation movement in Mozambique. In the early eighties he led a coalition protesting police brutality in Milwaukee.

There are more than 400 single-site schools run by people of color, according to the National Charter Collaborative

He was also a leading figure in the fight to save his high school alma mater. In 1978, after the $20 million construction of a brand-new, state-of-the-art North Division building, the school board proposed converting it into a magnet program designed to attract white middle-class families from across Milwaukee. While the city framed the decision as a move toward integration, local residents saw a racially motivated takeover attempt, as their children would no longer be guaranteed seats in the school. Fuller organized a coalition of parents and alumni against the move, ultimately forcing the board to abandon the plan.

What followed that victory, Fuller claims, were attempts to destabilize the school. For example: With the magnet proposal shelved, he and other members of the coalition spent the summer working closely with the school’s principal to develop a structure of academic and social supports for incoming ninth-graders. They went door-to-door recruiting participants for a parents council to elicit community input in the day-to-day operations of the school. “Two weeks before school started,” said Fuller, “the superintendent, Lee McMurrin, moved the principal to another school and brought in a middle school principal. The whole thing collapsed.”

Fuller decided that to make real change, he needed a seat at the table. He got involved in politics, and began a lifelong balancing act of promoting black self-determination from within white power structures. It was a shift that would create unorthodox alliances while pitting him against left-leaning allies. “I understood that many of my friends would not understand the change in strategy. I knew that to some I would be seen as ‘a sellout,’ ” Fuller writes in his memoir, “No Struggle, No Progress.”

What followed were a series of ultimate insider jobs that culminated with heading the county’s Department of Health and Human Services from 1988 to 1991 and then serving as Milwaukee’s school superintendent from 1991 to 1995.

By this time Fuller had grown skeptical of the county’s school desegregation program, which consisted almost exclusively of busing black children from the city to predominantly white suburban schools. Fuller was convinced that uprooting children from their neighborhoods instead of improving their existing schools unfairly placed the burden for integration squarely on already under-resourced black communities. In 1985, a state commission on which Fuller had served issued a report on the quality of education for Milwaukee students, finding that, after 15 years of busing, the majority of poor black children from the city, regardless of which school they attended, were still performing below the national average on test scores and far below their suburban peers.

Related: Nearly 750 charter schools are whiter than the nearby district schools

In 1987 he had helped craft a plan to carve out a separate, majority-black school district within Milwaukee as a way to shift more control over schools and curriculum to the community itself. The measure passed the Wisconsin State Assembly before dying in the Senate. The defeat would drive Fuller toward his most controversial stances on urban education. He concluded that in a system that wasn’t serving low-income black children well, their families should be able to opt out.

Milwaukee’s school choice program has often led to very low enrollment in neighborhood district schools like North Division High School.
Milwaukee’s school choice program has often led to very low enrollment in neighborhood district schools like North Division High School. Credit: Amadou Diallo for The Hechinger Report

In 1990 Milwaukee launched the first comprehensive school voucher program in the nation. Low-income parents could now apply to receive state education funds to send their children to secular private schools. Establishment of the voucher program was a huge victory for Fuller, who had worked in support of state lawmaker Polly Williams, author of the legislation. Williams would eventually become a vocal critic of the school choice program as it expanded in later years to include religious schools and families with higher incomes, but Fuller remained a staunch supporter, despite the program’s mixed results.

“My support for vouchers,” he said, “didn’t have a damn thing to do with free-market principles … it was a social justice issue to me.”

But he saw an even greater opportunity for low-income black families in a newer idea: charter schools.

Charter critics worried about draining funds from district schools and a lack of union regulations over teacher hiring, wages and benefits, especially in low-income communities. Russell Rickford, associate professor of history at Cornell University and author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination says that for him, “it is impossible to see advocating measures that harm public education as a win for black students when the vast majority of black children depend on public schools.”

Noliwe Rooks, author of Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, sees in Fuller’s legacy the worsening of an already bleak education landscape. “In Milwaukee, vouchers have been an educational failure for black and poor children,” she says, “and have primarily benefited middle class whites by shifting money to religious and private schools that those children attend.”

Fuller saw an opportunity for community-led institutions with greater autonomy, which cost nothing for black students to attend.

Yet, like vouchers, the results for charters have been mixed — overall and more specifically for the small, black-run charters Fuller supports. A 2016 study of black-led, Afrocentric charter schools by Martell Teasley, dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Utah, found that two-thirds of the schools failed to meet statewide standards, while other research shows that children in racially isolated schools fare poorly.

But that may not tell the whole story, Teasley says. “There’s disproportionality in public schools around school suspension and expulsion which leads to the … school-to-prison pipeline.” He argues that if all Afrocentric schools do is to stop the flow of kids being put in the juvenile justice system for behavioral rather than criminal issues they would be worthwhile “even if their test scores weren’t meeting standards.”

The independent, black-run charters that are showing success do so in spite of often daunting odds. At the Ember Charter School, students are besting statewide test averages in English, but as with other black-led schools, securing resources is a constant challenge. With so little of the country’s wealth found in black communities, “Black-led charters are the least-funded schools in America,” says Ember founder Kalam Id-Din. Small schools without the economies of scale deployed by national charter networks find it especially difficult to achieve the level of excellence to which Fuller and his disciples aspire.

At Fuller’s own charter school, Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, records show current enrollment of about 300 students, but Fuller says that breaking even financially would require an enrollment of 450. He’s forced to make up the deficit from donors. In 2017 the school received more than $462,000 in contributions, according to IRS filings.

To raise those funds Fuller often relies on a network of conservative school choice allies he has cultivated over the years, despite their support for social and economic policies that contribute to black impoverishment. It’s a strategy Fuller views as a necessary contradiction, but that others say has undermined his credibility.

The trade-off

Fuller launched his chief advocacy arm for school choice, the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, housed at Marquette University, more than two decades ago. The Bradley Foundation (a longtime supporter of author and columnist Charles Murray, whose infamous 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” calls for the U.S. to stop ”subsidizing childbirth” for low-income women because of their alleged propensity to rear low-IQ children) issued grants totaling more than $180,000 in the institute’s early days and has been a frequent funder in the years since, according to the institute’s annual report and an analysis by SourceWatch.

If all Afrocentric schools did was to stop the flow of kids being put in the juvenile justice system … they would be worthwhile “even if their test scores weren’t meeting standards.”

A second group headed by Fuller, the now-defunct Black Alliance for Educational Options, received significant funds from The Walton Family Foundation — backers of free-market, anti-union groups like The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and The Heritage Foundation.

Fuller’s involvement with philanthropists steeped in conservative ideology reached its peak of exposure when, in 2017, he offered a video testimonial in support of the nomination of Betsy DeVos, another former funder, as U.S. secretary of education. This summer, the NAACP filed suit against her department accusing it of abandoning civil rights enforcement.

Other than the DeVos endorsement — Fuller now says he cannot work with anyone who works with Trump — Fuller offers no specific regrets for aligning himself with conservatives, but does acknowledge practical pitfalls in courting allies with wildly differing world views. When Fuller called Trump “a despicable human being” at an education conference in early 2018, his school lost a grant (he declined to disclose the donor).

Related: Early evidence of a ‘Trump effect’ on bullying in schools

His funders “may be in this for very different reasons than I am,” he acknowledges. What matters in Fuller’s view is not their motivation, but whether they can further his goals. Fuller says he’s always been guided by a simple principle: “What can I do to advance the interests of the poorest black people?”

Fuller’s ability to accept the contradictions between his beliefs and those of some of his funders was influenced by the work of his friend and noted legal scholar the late Derrick Bell, whose “interest convergence” theory cast a transactional rather than a moral lens on the sporadic advances of the country’s disenfranchised. As Fuller describes it: “The only time black people have made progress in America is when our interests converge with those of the white ruling class at a given moment.”

Relying on conservative donors, is not, of course the only way to fund a black-controlled school. Carol D. Lee, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, launched the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools network in Chicago in 1998 (she says she began a previous incarnation of the schools in 1972). She acknowledges the constant struggle for resources.

“All of us go to philanthropic sources for funding,” she said. She first met Fuller in the late sixties, and while she declined to comment directly on his funding alliances with conservative donors she stressed that the source of funding does matter. “If there was an opportunity to get funding from an organization … espousing any set of beliefs or practices that were fundamentally against the interests of black people, we wouldn’t take it.”

The legacy

Fuller is comfortable with the contradictions that define his career. “I’ve been called a militant revolutionary and a tool of billionaires,” he says with a laugh.

“The only time black people have made progress in America is when our interests converge with those of the white ruling class at a given moment.”

But closer to home, the costs of the compromises he’s had to make to pursue his vision are put in stark relief. He’s become a divisive figure among the people he cares most about, the residents of Milwaukee’s North Side.

On the evening of June 28, about 100 residents, alumni, teachers and students filed into North Division’s school cafeteria for a public meeting called to explore options for community-led oversight of the struggling school. Fuller had been invited as a speaker. His very presence, however, saw the meeting dissolve into accusations of a school takeover in the service of moneyed outside interests, according to multiple people in attendance. Emotions ran high.

Accusations came from alumni and parents that his affiliation with white, conservative school choice backers made his motives suspect. While many of those in attendance agreed on the need for more community involvement at the school, some said Fuller’s involvement made them question just whose community would ultimately be represented. In discussing the meeting afterward, multiple residents and alumni independently expressed the concern that those in power were angling to take the campus away from the community in hopes of increasing the pace of gentrification in the neighborhood.

These are sentiments that could have easily been expressed by Fuller 40 years ago when he was fighting to save the school. But today they are directed at him.

In reflective moments Fuller does wonder whether all of the battles he’s chosen to fight have been necessary to his cause. “You’re always worried about ‘Is this the right thing at this moment?’ There’s some things you wish you hadn’t done,” he says.

A larger question for him is whether his efforts will be accompanied by the progress he’s envisioned. He can look with pride at graduates of his charter school who have gone on to college and meaningful careers, as well as at the new generation of black educators operating their own schools, supported by groups like the black-led National Charter Collaborative.

There are also schools with diverse — though perhaps not majority-black — boards embracing the spirit of what Fuller has advocated for, through community-driven educational approaches in underserved communities. Places like Roses in Concrete, an Oakland charter where kindergartners discuss Black Lives Matter, for example. And there are now some district schools in black-run school systems embracing the mantle of black control as the best way to reach equality, such as the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, D.C., with its exclusive focus on males of color.

But Fuller is also realistic about the difficulties facing anyone trying to create schools like these, particularly under a Trump administration that embraces white supremacists and appears to use racism as a voter turnout strategy.

He shares a memory of his friend the late Dr. Kenneth Clark, whose famous doll experiment proved crucial in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Clark lamented, toward the end of his life, “All the work that I’ve done. I don’t know if it’s meant a damn thing.” Fuller says, “It’s important to be honest about the limitations of your work. You know that no matter what you do it’s not enough.”

This story about black-controlled schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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