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74 Interview: Howard Fuller on Schooling Elizabeth Warren About Charters, African-American Families, School Choice & Her Education Plan

By Beth Hawkins | December 3, 2019

John Little/Facebook

Updated Dec. 5

See previous 74 interviews: Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson on getting students to — and through — college; law professor Jack Coons on rethinking school funding; and United Negro College Fund CEO Michael Lomax on guiding low-income students to college graduation. See the full archive here.

The night after the November Democratic presidential debate, Elizabeth Warren held a campaign rally at historically black Clark Atlanta University. A bid to win black voters, the event was pitched as a recognition of the historic role of black women in protest — and protest a number of black women in the audience did. Clad in matching Powerful Parent Network T-shirts, many had ridden buses from all over the country to voice their opposition to education elements of Warren’s platform, which proposes curtailing charter schools.

In photos taken at the event, the Memphis grandmother and education activist who spearheaded the caravan, Sarah Carpenter, can be seen leading the chant — “Our children, our choice” — that interrupted Warren. At her side was longtime school choice advocate Howard Fuller, one of the founders of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, a group formed last summer in anticipation of campaign trail assaults on charters by Democratic candidates.

The two groups are separate but share an aim: to make sure the candidates, who will need support from voters of color to cinch the Democratic nomination, know that public charter schools and other forms of school choice enjoy support within black and brown communities with long histories of being failed by traditional schools. Much of the news coverage of the Atlanta protests focused on the fact that Carpenter’s organization, Memphis Lift, has received funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which is singled out for criticism in Warren’s education platform.

The protest succeeded in winning Fuller, Carpenter and several parent network members a post-speech audience with Warren, who assured them she would reread her plan to “make sure I got it right.” In an interview with The 74, Fuller expressed skepticism the parents moved the candidate, noting, among other things, that Warren failed to acknowledge that one of her children attended both public and private school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Walk us back to the start of things. This was an event at which Warren was going to talk about race equity?

Howard Fuller: Sitting in that gym, listening and absorbing all of it, was in some ways surreal. We had a section in the bleachers. There were probably about 175 people from the parent network. There was a huge electronic sign above the stage saying black women are valued, and then Elizabeth Warren’s name under it: Elizabeth Warren values black women. The whole program was set up to honor black women who had engaged in struggle over time.

All these speakers had been lavishing praise on Warren, how she was going to fight for all of us and, “We got to flip the table, create a new table.” I’m sitting there saying to myself, “You’re talking about all this struggle, yet you’re pursuing a policy that denies the self-determination of black women.” For me, the whole rally was a contradiction. That for me was surreal.

When Warren begins to speak, Sarah [Carpenter] stood up and people from the Powerful Parent Network began to chant, “Our children, our choice.” They didn’t know what to do with us. There was one group of people saying, “Put them out.” But there’s another group who understood we’re standing up here talking about flipping the table, radical change, protests and how much we value black women, and here’s a group that’s mostly black women. Are we going to put them out? What’s the optics of that?

Ultimately, Sarah went outside to speak to the press and I went out with her. A black man came up to me and turned out to be Warren’s pastor. He asked me if I could get them to stop so that she could continue talking. I told him I was not in charge, I was there to support a parent network. But I would ask Sarah if she was willing to do that, and she said yes. And that’s how we ended up meeting with Elizabeth Warren.

What did she say to you?

I will say she didn’t have to meet with us. Some people would argue she did. I would argue she didn’t have to.

Sarah took the lead in explaining the protest. Where I got out of sorts with Warren — and what to me was unforgivable — Sarah was pouring out her heart, literally: Look, you don’t live in a community just like I live in. You don’t know what it’s like. My grandchild was saved by a charter school. I got 16 grandchildren.

She was really just pouring out her heart, right? And she said, she being Sarah, “Your children probably went to a private school.” Warren said to her, in a manner that tried to make Sarah feel uninformed and stupid, “No, my kids went to public school,” and then patted her hand.

If you look at the video, you’ll see it. I didn’t know at that moment of time she was lying about the school situation of her child, that came out later. But it was just — how can we say we value black women and treat Sarah the way that she did? It was disgusting.

 

People have to understand just what that felt like. For me, it was no longer just an issue of policy, it was an issue of what kind of person are you? You’re upstairs talking about how much you value black women, and here’s a black woman who’s poured her heart out to you and you treat her in the manner that she treated her? I was done when that happened.

It seemed as if the public narrative about the evening was out of control right from the start. In contrast to the conversation you just described to me, we saw headlines about paid protesters disrupting Warren’s event.

The disruptions did occur. Sarah said, “We didn’t really come here to disrupt you, but when it became clear that we were not going to be able to express our concerns to you, we felt like we had no other choice.”

The second thing is, there was, of course, reference to Dr. Martin Luther King and his struggles. And what’s really interesting is the way that J. Edgar Hoover attacked Martin Luther King was to accuse him of being funded by the communists. In my way of looking at the world, they’re using the same playbook, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren or [her] so-called progressive supporters, the same playbook.

We don’t talk about the issues that people are raising, like the right of self-determination, the failure of the traditional system to educate their children, the need for them to have the same powers to choose that Warren had for her own child. They don’t want to talk about that. They want to try to get you caught up in, “Well, they must be here because the Waltons paid them to be here,” or, “They’re paid provocateurs.”

It’s an old tactic. That playbook has been used over and over against people who tried to make a change in the status quo, and what’s interesting is, you could ask anybody in there, “Who pays you?” or “How did you get here?” or “Who paid for these buses?” or whatever. But I assume that people are there because they believe in whatever it is they’re talking about, not because somebody paid them.

Yeah, I’ve been funded by Walton. And I’ve said over and over again, my problem with being funded by Walton is I don’t get enough money. The Walton [Family] Foundation has never told me to do one single thing, ever. I’ve gone to them with ideas, they’ve either funded it or not funded it.

This idea that you can just smear people by talking about who funds them, J. Edgar Hoover did that to the man that they were in the gym praising. It’s just disingenuous, that level of attack.

Carpenter and the Powerful Parents Network held a GoFundMe to get members there, didn’t they?

If they got money from any other source, I know nothing about it. But even if they did, so what? Those parents got on a bus and rode six hours from Memphis and from Nashville. It wasn’t like they were on a chartered plane, you know? They were there because they were concerned about her attacks on their ability to have options for their children.

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74 Interview: Longtime Civil Rights Activist Howard Fuller on Trump, DeVos, and What It’s Like to Advocate for School Choice in an Age of ‘Hypocrisy’

It must frustrate you to watch white liberals fight about what black people need. 

I’m used to it. It’s just another example of the hypocrisy that exists among so many so-called progressives and liberals. Elizabeth Warren, when you read what she’s talking about eliminating: She doesn’t want to have vouchers. She doesn’t want to have tax credits. Which would be the only way that most poor parents could get their kid to a private school, like she was able to do for her child. That to me, is the hypocrisy. And she knows it’s hypocritical. That’s why she lied.

What do you say to the liberal line of thinking that says, “Yes, let’s say that’s all true. And it’s very important for a Democrat to win the next election.”

Then you should quit attacking us. People came to me and said, “Well, Howard, what you’re doing is you’re supporting Donald Trump.” I mean, I’m on record everywhere around this country saying that Donald Trump is a despicable human being, and he has done hurtful things to black and brown people, let alone to what he’s done to the country.

I’m just talking about the things that he has done. But the fact that he has not just made white supremacy mainstream, but he’s got people out there literally talking about civil war if he’s not re-elected president of the United States. I mean, the damage that this man has done, the hurt. The fact that there are immigrant families who are afraid to go to church for fear of being deported. The fact that he’s demagogued immigrants, it’s despicable.

And so anybody who is going to be out here saying I’m trying to help Donald Trump, you’re insane. I’m not the person that you ought to be talking to. Don’t tell me to stand down from attacks. Tell Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, or any of these other people, tell them to quit attacking us.

I told Warren, “Look, I would much rather be spending my time and energy organizing against Donald Trump, but you attacked us, and so we’re here because you attacked us.” She tried to say she didn’t. But all you got to do is read her plan.

What do you want people to know about your plans going forward?

I can only speak for the Freedom Coalition. We’re going to be in Los Angeles on Dec. 19 at the Democratic debate, as we’ve been for the previous three. And then we’re going to sit down after that to determine what other actions, if any, we’re going to take.

What we’re trying to establish — so that everyone is absolutely clear — is that the attack on charters, and the attack on [school] choice more generally, is an attack on self-determination of black and brown families who need these options for their children, No. 1.

No. 2, there are people in the charter movement who are more concerned about their brand than standing up and fighting for these families, and they need to understand that that’s a problem. Because at this point in time, if you believe that these families that we have been given the privilege of serving, if you believe that what we are bringing to them is critical for their children and their families, this is not a time to begin hiding.

This is not a time to be, “Well, we’ve got to think more about what our funders are going to say, or what this person is going to say, or how people are going to see our brand.” If that’s the argument you’re making, you’re in the wrong place, in the wrong moment in history. Because if we actually believe in these families and these kids, then all of us should be standing firm, strong and unapologetic in supporting their right to self-determination.

This right of self-determination, it is harmful to families not to have this as an option. And that this is not a time for people who say that they support charters to be silent, or just hope that this’ll go away. No. What we have to be concerned about are these families, people like Sarah Carpenter, and all these other families who have the courage to go into that gym and disrupt that rally.

That took courage. And those of us who say we’re a part of this, if we’re not standing firm to support that courage, what good are we?

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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