Howard Fuller — podcastED

The school choice movement could be heading toward a critical juncture for one of its biggest champions. Last week, Howard Fuller made clear his distaste for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to remove the income restrictions to the Milwaukee voucher program, and he says in this redefinED podcast that he’ll offer no support to efforts in other states that fail to means-test their own voucher or tax-credit plans.

“I will continue to fight for vouchers, tax credit scholarships, opportunity scholarship programs, charter schools, home schools, virtual schools — anything that empowers low-income and working-class people to be able to have some of the capacity to choose what those of us with money have,” said Fuller, the former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. “I will never fight for giving people who already have means more resources. Because, in the end, that will disadvantage and squeeze out the possibility of poor parents having some of these options.”

This is not to say that Fuller won’t consider raising the income threshold to serve more of Milwaukee’s working poor. In the interview, he talks about aligning the requirements for entry into the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program with those of Wisconsin’s BadgerCare program, which provides health care to state residents who earn less than 300 percent of poverty. “That would capture over 80 percent of the households in the city,” he said. “So if your real objective is to expand the level of support, you could do that and still retain a focus on low-income and moderate-income families.”

But if Wisconsin and other states want to make their vouchers universally accessible to families of any income level, “it may very well be that it’s time for people like me to get off the stage,” he said. “Maybe it has to be a different movement going forward, but if that’s the way the movement has to be going forward, it’s not something that I can be a part of.”

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit


Over at Eduwonk, Matt Ladner responds to Fuller by saying, “If someone can explain why it is a great idea to allow a child of a billionaire to attend a Milwaukee public school at $13k in taxpayer cost, but gasp in horror if the same child were to receive a $6,440 school voucher, I’m all ears”, but he doesn’t address the political issues raised by Fuller or the foresight he reveals in this interview. I wonder if any of your readers who are pro-Universal vouchers have a counter argument to Dr Fuller on his point about black Democrats?

Matthew Ladner


I am a huge admirer of Howard, and while I don’t entirely share the Coons viewpoint which Howard champions, I do understand and respect it. As for the political situation in Wisconsin, I couldn’t say, but I will say this: I sure as hell want Howard on the train!

The point that I have been trying to make is that there is a reasonable compromise to be reached between the Friedman and Coons schools of thought- universal access with an advantage for the poor.


To address Anna’s point, many Democrats who back these plans would agree with Fuller and they would likely abandon that support if these schemes go universal. Coons has long backed a means-tested approach primarily because the poor never had choices, but he also believes we can afford a higher scholarship if we focus on low-income families. How do we get to your compromise and still get poor students a scholarship that puts a private education within reach without sacrificing the political support to which Fuller refers?

Matthew Ladner


For Democrats who care about equity, I don’t think it is very hard, unless they are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face.

Let’s assume that we are willing to restructure the entire Milwaukee school budget- district, vouchers, charters- everything. Let’s make up some numbers for sake of argument with $13k per kid going to the district, $10k per kid going to a charter school and $6,400 per kids in the voucher program.

The status-quo on this is utterly and completely absurd from an equity standpoint. Neither the district nor the charter schools are means tested but the voucher program is means tested at the FRL level. Ergo- the system is willing to hand out $13k for the benefit of a millionaire’s child, but is only willing to give $6,400 to a child using a voucher.

This is INSANE.

So let’s assume that we were going to do this right. We could take the entire budget of all three sectors and put it into an Education Savings Account for each child. We could turn the equity system of the status-quo on its head by providing much more money for lower income children.

For example, we could put $15k per child into the ESA of FRL kids, $10k for middle income kids, and $7,500 for high income kids.

The district average is $13,000- so in this scenario you have the middle and high income kids generating the savings it takes to give low-income children more. The rich work for the poor.

Now, some might object to this system because it still gives $7,500 to wealthy kids. My response to this would be to ask them to carefully reconsider their means-testing fetish. Since I would have never seen any of these people proposing to means test public schools (I have never seen anyone propose this at all) I would ask them to explain this glaring inconsistency in their thought. Why would anyone with a sincere interest in promoting the interests of the poor cling to a status-quo which gives the most to those who have the most, and the least to those who have the least?

Perhaps a way to think about this subject is in terms of making k-12 education “affordable” for all, rather than “free” for all. By using the affordability approach, the financial barier is removed for everyone, and we gain a flexible cost saving system. Aren’t those the main points?

[…] Howard Fuller is absolutely right to threaten to “get off the stage” and refuse to strike a deal with the devil. “I will never fight for giving people who already have means more resources. Because, in the end, that will disadvantage and squeeze out the possibility of poor parents having some of these options,” said Fuller. […]

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