Q&A: Howard Fuller talks about changing narratives, funding and business involvement in education

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National education reform advocate and former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Howard Fuller was on the ground floor of promoting school choice in Milwaukee over 30 years ago. In 2003, he helped found a private voucher high school in Milwaukee that later transitioned to become the public charter school known as Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy. Now serving about 325 students, the school aims to grow to accommodate 500 students within the next few years. Fuller recently spoke with BizTimes Milwaukee about the challenges facing Milwaukee schools, the limitations of school report cards and other accountability metrics, and the role of the business community in supporting education.

BizTimes: School leaders have been sounding the alarm on the funding gap (between voucher/charter schools and Milwaukee Public Schools) for a while now. What’s your outlook on that funding formula changing?

Howard Fuller: “If you go back to the very beginning of this, there were certain kinds of philosophical viewpoints about how much money was needed, and there were also political realities to get the program passed in the first place. So, on the philosophical side, there was always this view that (private voucher schools) didn’t need as much money because (they) didn’t have all the different bureaucracy etc., etc. That was one argument. Another argument that came from the people who opposed the program was that, if you’re going to create this program, then it should be a state-funded program and no local property tax dollars should be a part of it. So, if you go back and try to understand the historical foundation for why this gap exists, those are at least two elements of why we are where we are today. … Now what we’re faced with is the reality that, if you’re a family of three and you’re low-income living in the city of Milwaukee and you send one of your kids to MPS, you generate about $17,000 (in state, local and federal funding), if you were to send a child to our school (Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy), it would be close to $10,000, and if you send them to a private school it would be about $9,000. That funding disparity, that funding inequality, threatens the existence of the education ecosystem that has been built over all of these years because it’s not sustainable. The private schools and charter schools have to raise so much philanthropy each year that, ultimately, it is not a sustainable possibility, and so this idea of closing that funding gap is extremely important for the kind of ecosystem that’s been built for it to survive.”

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For Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, in particular, what does that look like in terms of what you need to raise on an annual basis to sustain your operations?

“Even to do the minimal stuff that we have, which isn’t enough, we have to raise at least about $600,000 a year for operating. And that still doesn’t do what you really need. So, one of the issues that we face – which is kind of a separate issue but it’s linked – right now I would say about 22% of our freshmen are special ed, and it’s probably about 17 to 18% for the entire school. For a school of 325 kids, that’s a lot. As you know, you have to have all of these additional resources to serve kids who have special needs, and since we’re a school that’s going to serve all children, that’s a reality. So that’s a whole other element of this funding issue. The coalition that Tim (Sheehy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce) and I are working on pulling together, we’re not talking about special ed, we’re only talking about the basic funding inequality, but there are other issues like special ed that will also have to be addressed at some point in time.”

Of course, the business community is very much invested in seeing future workers come out of the Milwaukee school system, and some are frustrated that change isn’t happening fast enough. Do you think there’s a role for the business community to play in holding schools accountable if they are not improving or not meeting expectations?

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“One thing I would say is – and this is the lessons that I’ve learned over all these years – schools can make a critical difference in children’s lives; I have no doubt about that. But what I also know is that if kids come to you hungry, if kids come to you without having proper housing, if they don’t have proper health care, all of the things that happen to kids before they ever show up at a school door, we can’t sit here and act like ‘Oh, that’s OK. The schools can make that up.’ That’s absurd. And what I would argue is that, although our school has to help every single kid that comes to us, … I know how difficult this work is. It’s true of all our schools. The one thing I may have been guilty of over all these years, even though I’ve tried not to do this, is not give teachers and school leaders enough grace for what it is that they’re facing every single day. It’s easy to be outside talking about what should be done; it’s much more difficult to be inside, confronting the realities that people confront every day. … Our kids don’t live in a school; they live in a community. And the impact of what happens to them in a community impacts what happens to them in school.

“But I’m walking a really fine line here because there are many who would argue that, because kids have these difficulties, we can’t be expected to educate them, and I don’t buy that. But at the same time, I’m not going to sit here and act like nothing has happened to them before they ever get to us, and act like that has no impact because it has a huge impact. So, when you go back to what is the role of the business community, I go back to what is the role of all of us, in terms of what should we be doing to create a better overall environment for our children, including what happens to them inside of school buildings?”

On that note, a lot of attention is paid to school report cards as a measure of how a school is doing. Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, from what I understand, is an example of a school that takes students who are pretty far behind grade level and then gets them to a place where they are accelerating more quickly but may not be at grade level, and that’s reflected on your school report card. What are your thoughts on that?

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“So, one of the problems with being old is I was back there at the beginning of some of this stuff and helped create some of the problems we now have now. I was the founding board chair of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. When we first started, the focus was on choice; it wasn’t on quality. So, at a certain point I created a commission on quality. .. Those of us who were supporting the quality argument – and the test scores were a basis for understanding that – came up against people who were saying ‘No, there should be no use of test scores to determine how well we’re doing.’ What I believe happened is we went way over to the other side where test scores became the predominant and consummate way to understand the value of a school. And I believe that that was a mistake because we are now in a situation where people will look at test scores, and they won’t necessarily look at value added.

“I believe that we have things on report cards that schools should not be held responsible for, although I know this will never change. For example, how do you hold schools responsible for attendance? There’s an argument that, if the school is really doing great things, kids will come. That’s not a real thing. Because if a parent wakes up and says, ‘I’m not sending my kid to school today because I want her to take care of her younger brothers,’ you have no control over that as a school, but yet you’re held responsible for attendance.

“If you’re a high school and you’re getting kids three or four grade levels behind and you don’t have the resources that you need, how much accountability should you be held responsible for? … We have kids who come (to Dr. Howard Fuller College Academy) reading three or four grade levels behind and they’re able to get to a point where they could get like a 16, let’s say, on their ACT. Most of those kids are not going to get to a 31. … But if you get kids to a 16 or 17 … there’s a variety of options that are available to them. If you look at our school, I don’t think our school is a high-performing school, but I’m not trying to be a high-performing school. I’m trying to have a school that will change children’s lives, that will put them on a trajectory that gives them a chance to be socially, economically productive citizens.

“What I’m saying is my job is to … talk to these kids, to try to convince them that education is the one lever that they have to change the trajectory of their lives. I should care what the report cards say because other people look at it, but that’s not why I come in here every day.

“I’m trying to explain the tension I feel around test scores and some of these measures versus the day-to-day realities of children’s lives and the work of these educators who are confronting enormous problems every single day.”

This sort of ties into the discussion about resources and the business community. If you are a high-performing school, according to a report card, you’re able to market that and put that in front of people with money and say, ‘Support us – we’ve got a good thing going,’ but if you have a more complicated narrative like the one that you’re sharing with me, I imagine that would be difficult. And in that case, schools with access to (philanthropic) dollars are better positioned to get more.

“But that’s our society, right? The thing is we talk about schools like they’re some foreign matter. No. Schools are a reflection of the community that they’re part of. I was giving a speech last week and I was trying to explain that it’s really hard to have a just subset on an unjust reality. The reality is our society has certain fundamental inequities and inequalities … and what I’m saying is people expect a school to function in equitable ways when they’re a part of a broader system that is not equitable.”

“We have an enormous challenge here and the funding thing is one part of it. But another part of it is changing the narrative – and I can’t say I haven’t been a part of creating this narrative – where you criticize a system. But a system is ultimately made up of people. It’s not an abstraction. So, I’m trying very hard to say – and I tried to do this when I was superintendent — that I understand how difficult it is for induvial teachers but the way our system is constructed, it doesn’t allow for you to be the best part of who you could be as a teacher. But it’s very difficult to criticize a system because, people who are working in it see that as a direct criticism of them.”

Bringing it back to the business community, what are productive ways that you’ve seen or that you think the business community can engage with the education system?

“I’ve been a lot of places where the business community is not involved at the level that the business community is involved in Milwaukee. And for some people they see that as a negative; I see it as a positive because what it means is that people actually care. And I’ve been in communities where people literally don’t care. What’s interesting is even some of the debates that we have I see as constructive because it means that people still care. In some communities there is no debate because people have given up, and the one thing I can say about Milwaukee is we haven’t given up, and I believe the business community has been a critical part of the not giving up.”

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