A Superintendent Lost, a Crusader Gained


Milwaukee -- The nation's 15th-largest urban school system will open this fall without Howard Fuller -- the superintendent who was fast making Milwaukee a national experiment in reinventing schools for the benefit of the children they enroll instead of the people who work there.

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association ran a slate of anti-Fuller candidates in springtime school-board elections. In a light turnout, four of five triumphed. Mr. Fuller then announced he would resign rather than face "death by a thousand cuts."

Now he will head a research center on school reform at Marquette University. He'll also work with the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation on school issues. And he may well be heard from nationally.

But what about the kids Mr. Fuller leaves behind, students in a system with such poverty that 73 percent receive free or subsidized lunches? And what about the Milwaukee business community, which had counted on his aggressive outreach to connect business with the schools, to assure more young people are actually ready to work by their late teens?

Milwaukee "lost the leadership and advocacy of a great community leader," said Timothy Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce. Mayor John Norquist expressed disappointment over the resignation. So did Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Mr. Fuller, 54, may now try from the outside to light a bonfire for sweeping school reforms of special import for minorities and the poor. If he does, he'll bring unusual qualifications to the task. He is light-years from your run-of-the-mill professional who picks school administration for pay or prestige. Mr. Fuller once described himself as a Marxist revolutionary. In the '60s and '70s he used a Swahili name -- Owusu Sadauki -- while organizing for the AFL-CIO. Later, as a college administrator, he pressed for a separate black school system.

In his four years as Milwaukee superintendent, Mr. Fuller pressed to make the schools semi-autonomous units that would compete for students and buy or sell services from a slimmed-down central administration. He wanted schools to control their own funds -- but be held strictly accountable for student test-score results. He started experimenting with charter schools and was ready to contract out the operation of entire schools.

It's high time, he said, "to dismantle the industrial paradigm -- yak in the box, 47-9-12: 47 minutes of talk at the kids, for 9 months out of 12, and then they're supposed to have it."

Instead, according to Mr. Fuller, schools need expansive goals: They should make all children lifelong learners who maximize their intellectual, physical, moral capabilities; guarantee that those headed for higher education don't need to spend their first college year in remedial courses; assure that students going directly from high school to work "have at least the skills and attitudes they need to put them on a path to a meaningful career."

He added another goal rare among educators -- that some of the graduates "develop an entrepreneurial spirit so that they will be able to create wealth for themselves and their community."

As for racial integration in schools, Mr. Fuller believes "shuffling black bodies around to mix with whites doesn't provide anything." More critical, in his view: support for families as well as kids, and setting goals and standards for blacks every bit as rigorous as those for whites.

Public school systems, he argues, are incapable of reform from within: "Powerful forces conspire to protect careers, contracts and current practices before tending to the interests of children." He likes to quote education expert William Daggett: .. "We must love our children's hopes, dreams and prayers more )) than we love the institutional heritage of the school system."

With that kind of attitude, one has little tolerance for excuses. A failed school, said Mr. Fuller, should be closed: "These parents are sending them the best kids they've got." Thirty-two percent of Milwaukee teachers, he noted, don't even send their own kids to Milwaukee schools.

None of this means Howard Fuller has a perfect formula for school reform; he may be better at criticizing school systems, their school boards, administrations and unions, than proposing what should replace them.

But his adventuresome exploration of alternatives, his uncompromising insistence on demonstrable results, his radical background and the strong relationships he forged with business, could well make him a potent figure in American

education reform in the years ahead.

One can easily imagine him, for example, working with the Wisconsin legislature for reforms undercutting public-school monopolies. A powerful speaker, he may also appear before audiences concerned with school reform across the country -- indeed he has already begun making some out-of-state appearances.

If that means more communities experimenting with charter schools, contracted schools, perhaps whole new competitive school clusters, the teacher-union crowd should not be surprised. By ambushing Mr. Fuller when he was only an annoyance to their contract privileges in Milwaukee, they may have made him a nationally recognized force for sweeping reform.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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