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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Howard Fuller’s No Struggle, No Progress

By Rick Hess — September 22, 2014 3 min read
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There are a lot of people I like in the world of education. There are a few that I really trust. And, for better or worse, there is hardly anyone who inspires or impresses me. People who are supposed to be remarkable or riveting often leave me cold. I guess I’m just not wired that way.

Today, though, I get to write about someone who inspires even my jaded soul. I first met Howard Fuller in 1999, when I finally ran down the former Milwaukee superintendent (revolutionary, state bureaucrat, and everything else) and interviewed him for my book on how vouchers and charters had affected the Milwaukee Public Schools. Howard was dynamic, funny, intimidating, informed--and one of only a handful of people in the city who could actually explain, in detail, the intricacies of the city’s overlapping school choice programs.

Since that time, I’ve occasionally gotten to work with Howard, and have spent my fair share of times in rooms with him--both small and large. Well, he’s now penned a book. No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform is as forceful and engaging as its author (who is writing with former Washington Post reporter Lisa Frazier Page). Part autobiography, part policy treatise, part manifesto, the book is stuffed with telling detail and from-the-shoulder wisdom. The best description I can offer is that it was like spending a half-day listening to Howard tell stories and impart hard-won wisdom. If you know Howard, I don’t really need to say any more than that. If you don’t know Howard, think of a long conversation with your no-illusions, straight-talking, seen-it-all uncle. Let me keep it simple: read this book.

I think how a book begins often tells you all you need to know about it. Howard’s introduction begins, “My meeting with Texas Governor George W. Bush was supposed to last a half hour... I was less than eager to participate. I’d been around politics long enough to know that these kinds of sessions were largely ceremonial. The politician would do most of the talking, I might get to say a thing or two about why school vouchers were good for poor Black children, and we’d be up and out of there. But when my colleague and I sat down with the governor, a surprising thing happened: I connected with the dude... ‘Hey, I’m going to be the next President of the United States,’ he said. ‘Would you be interested in coming to Washington with me?’”

From the first page to the last, this is a fascinating, eye-opening account by someone who’s long been in the middle of the scrum. The chapter titles tell the tale, featuring tags like “Grandma’s Hands,” “Black & Proud,” “Rebuilding Myself,” and “The Battles Within.” Howard talks unblinkingly about black power, his time in Wisconsin state government, his battles as superintendent of Milwaukee, the formation of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and two decades of crusading and backroom politics in his fight for school choice and school improvement.

One of the things I love about Howard is that he argues fiercely and unflinchingly for what he believes to be right, and yet can negotiate deliberately and professionally with those who disagree. That’s a remarkable trait in this era--especially when many who haven’t paid a fraction of Howard’s dues are all too eager to vilify those who disagree. Within a couple of pages in his final chapter, Howard tells of negotiating with Democrats to fend off their effort to impose new restrictions on Wisconsin’s school voucher program and then of leaning on Republicans to stop a push to remove income restrictions on the voucher program.

Howard recounts that both decisions alienated friends, as most people who agree with him on one of those will disagree on the other. But Howard has always worried a helluva lot more about fighting for his principles than about placating his friends. And bless him for that.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.