A potent interchange between parent-choice activists and a Senator about the public sector, power and systems, and the poor and society

Dec 1, 2019

“With all due respect, you’re not listening to us.”

Community organizer and civil-rights and parent-choice activist Howard Fuller, who was superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools system from 1991 to 1995, told us in August as part of The Giving Review’s “Conversations” series, “I’m now organizing people to fight back against the assault on charters.

“People get all worked up because they ascribe a level of sacredness to the public sector that, to me, they shouldn’t,” Fuller also said. “For example, I make a clear distinction between public education and the system that delivers it. I don’t believe they’re the same things. We want the public to be educated, but you can create a variety of different delivery systems,” including charter schools.

“In all of these things I’ve tried to do in my life,” Fuller concluded, “the principle that I’ve been connected to [is]: how do the poorest people gain more control over their lives in this society?”

So when U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released a K-12 education plan last month, Fuller continued his organizing, in pursuit of that principle. Among other things, the plan calls for an end to federal support of new charter schools, a ban on for-profit charter schools, and making school districts the only authorizers of charter schools. It would also massively boost federal spending on public schools.

During a Warren campaign event at Clark Atlanta University after the plan’s release, she gave a fiery speech about black activism. “The fighters I want to talk about tonight are black women,” Warren began. A group of parent-choice advocates interrupted the speech, chanting “Our children, our choice!” Wearing T-shirts that said “Powerful Parents Network,” they demanded and were promised a meeting with Warren, before several of them were escorted out.

The promised post-speech meeting, a video of which is retrievable here, has garnered attention because of Warren’s assertion that her children attended public school—a decidedly contestable, and properly contested, fact—to activist Sarah Carpenter.

Fuller, Carpenter and another activist, and Warren

The rest of the meeting’s conversation, including between Fuller and Warren, has not gotten as much heed. It is a potent interchange—substantively and stylistically—so here’s a lengthy, edited transcript from the video.

Fuller: I’m one of your harshest critics—not because I want to be, but because you have put us in this position. We would much rather, right at this moment, be organizing to fight Donald Trump. But the way that you attack charter schools—and you use all of the union buzzwords: privatization, corporations, every single word of it ….

What I’m here to tell you is we are not the enemy. These families are trying to get the best options for their children. You’re talking about black history and this and that. I have great respect for your knowledge about things like the rich and all of this.

I was there for the charter-school movement. I was one of the few Black people in the 1980s that stood up and said we need this option for our children, because we understood that if you’re Black in America and you only got one option for your children, you’re in deep trouble.

What you did with the way that you came up with that education platform, you gave “air cover” to the people who are systematically attacking charter schools around this country. By talking about getting rid of the federal charter funds, you set the stage to roll back the kind of stuff that Obama and [U.S. Education Secretary] Ernie [Duncan] and all of them did—and, in fact, presidents before them, you go all the way back to Clinton.

What we would have wanted you to say—if you want to support the traditional public-school system, which we do as well—all we want you to do is not attack us. We don’t see why it’s necessary for you, in order to promote your program, if you want to be big, bold, and different, to come out and attack charter schools.

Let me just say this last point. When you attach charter schools, you need to understand that you are attacking the self-determination at Black and Brown parents. You can’t be up there on stage at Clark talking about how wonderful it is to be at HBCUs and all that, but yet you’re attacking an option that Black and Brown families need. You can’t have it both ways.

All we ask you to do is to back off of us.

Warren: Let me just ask, should charter schools have to meet the same standards as public schools? This is a big part of what’s bothered me. For example, as you know, in Michigan, charter schools don’t have to meet the same standards as public schools. I don’t think public dollars ought to go into schools that won’t meet those standards.

Fuller: But Senator Warren, you could easily have made that point, that what I’m for is that every public school is held accountable.

Warren: That’s what I’m for.

Fuller: But wait. Just hear me out. If you would have come out with an educational platform that, first of all, said I believe in public education—

Warren: I do.

Fuller: Which I do, also. But the difference between maybe you and me is, the Milwaukee Public Schools—of which I was the superintendent—is not public education; it’s a delivery system. There can be different delivery systems for public education.

If you came up with an education platform that said I support public education, I support a variety of different delivery systems, but I want all of these delivery systems be held accountable, if you would have said something like that, we wouldn’t even have been here. …

Warren: Well, let me go back and read it, ok?

The part that sticks the strongest for me is if you’re going to bet public dollars, you’ve got to meet the same standards. But we also know a lot of charter school don’t. … All I’m saying is that’s the part, when I’m looking for the solid ground to stand on, that’s the part I stand on.

Fuller: I’ll just give you some more solid ground to stand on. The reality of it is that if you look at the NAEP scores, as you know, in 2019, the gap actually went backwards. But in the city of Milwaukee, where I live, if you look at the … top 24 school districts in the country, in 2009, our scale score for fourth-grade reading was 187. Today, it’s 180.

What’s happening all around this country is poor Black and Brown children are not being educated.

Warren: I know this.

Fuller: OK. … Then, the question is, well, you only want to have one way for these families to try to get a good education for their children.

You don’t want to just have one way. You want to provide options.

You don’t … have to go to the private-school part, because charter schools are public schools. They are public schools. So you could talk about, I want to make sure these public schools meet the same standards, I want to make sure that these public schools are doing right by their children.

Carpenter: At the end of the day, we want great schools on every corner.

Warren: That’s what I want, too.

As I said, I care that charters meet the same standards as any other school. I think it’s a real mistake in the places where they don’t. The other part is I’ve recognized we’ve just got to have more resources in our schools. We may have different views about how to run them. I believe that should be up to the locals, not the federal government. But we need to put more resources in.

Mine’s the only plan that would put $800 billion into your public schools. It would quadruple the funding that goes into schools that are teaching low-income children. This is transforming. It would be the first time [that] children with disabilities would have all of the resources they need for education.

Fuller: I was the superintendent of a public-school system, and I’m going to tell you … if you put $800 billion into a system, whatever it is, and you don’t radically alter the practices of that system, I can tell you—having been a superintendent—all it’s going to do is absorb that money, and you will never see the change that you think you’re going to see.

When you stand up there, and you should, and talk about being bold and you’re doing something different—even if you came up with that amount of money—and you don’t say that there has to be significant structural changes in order to use that money, that money is going to go down the drain.

Warren: … Why would you say that’s true everywhere? We have good schools in Massachusetts. There’s good schools [elsewhere]. …

Fuller: But listen to what I’m saying. You’re not actually hearing what I’m saying. What I’m saying to you is two things. Number one: for our parents, charter schools are an option.

Warren: I understand that.

Fuller: If you’re Black and Brown in America, you want no option taken off the table for your children.

Warren: I understand that.

Fuller: That’s the first thing I’m saying. The second thing I’m saying to you is that there have been countless people before you who have come and said we’ve got to put more money into the system, we’ve got to put more money into the system, we’ve got to put more money into the system. All I’m telling you is it’s inconsistent with your larger point of view about thinking bold, thinking big. I am telling you that if you’re going to take that kind of money and put it into this traditional system, but you’re not going to talk about structural changes in that traditional system, that money’s going down the drain.

Now you can say, yeah, but look at Massachusetts. But then I can say look at Michigan, look at Ohio, look at Wisconsin. That’s all I’m telling you.

Warren: Nothing in my plan says we’re going to close existing charter schools. Nothing says that we’re going to end charter schools if you’re meeting the same standards. But I do think we need more resources ….

Fuller: If you want to do that, fine. All I’m telling you is either you have not clearly read your own plan, because your plan starts out with an attack on charter schools—

Warren: Well, what you may see as an attack is designed to say everybody’s got to meet the same standards and it does not say we’re going to close anybody’s public or charter schools.

Fuller: But when you begin talking about things like ending the national charter-school funds, that will in fact impact—

Warren: We’re talking about trying to put money into all of our schools, because—

Fuller: With all due respect, you’re not listening to us. What we’re telling you is, if you would have said I support public education, I want to make sure that all schools—traditional public schools, charter schools—meet the same standards, take care of our children, be held accountable—that’s one thing.

Warren: That’s what I thought I said.

Fuller: But that’s not what your plan does. That’s not what it does.

Warren: Let me just say I appreciate nothing more than how much you care about your children and your grandchildren, and getting them educated, and that’s all I want to do. If I don’t have the pieces right, I’ll go back and read it.

Reynolds: Go back and read it, please. …

Warren: I’m not making promises. I’ll go back and read it. I want to make sure I got it right.

In the wake of the episode, some critics of the protestors highlighted their sources of funding, including the Walton Family Foundation, which was also singled out for criticism in Warren’s plan itself. “I don’t give a damn what they say about where the funding came from—it’s an old trick that they’re using,” Fuller told Chalkbeat.

He added that he and other activists will keep trying to engage the candidates, including later this month in Los Angeles, where there will be a debate. “We are not going to go away.”

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