It's not often two books come out at roughly the same time that, together, provide a true glimpse at the critical and largely unknown story of how the modern day education reform movement came to be.
The first is inspired by the work of Dr. Wyatt T. Walker, former chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King. Mary C. Bounds' A Light Shines in Harlem begins in NY in 1999 as the state's charter school law is being debated -- or should I say -- battled into existence, and still one of the most memorable policy events in history with which I've been involved.
The Sisulu-Walker Charter School was born out of a match between Walker the civil rights icon, and a Wall Street investor seeking to provide equitable access for all children. Their alliance produced the first charter school in NYC. To say it wasn't easy, during that tumultuous political environment when the education establishment still vigorously defended the city's status quo, is an understatement. And the round the clock work -- literally -- put in by the people who banded together with the founding principal, would not see a real break for years. That is an incredible story in and of itself. But this book is not so much a story about how one school was founded, but how a movement in one of the world's greatest cities began, and lit fires in dozens more. A Light Shines in Harlem tracks the tenacity and heroism of a few of the reform movement's earliest and lesser known pioneers, in standing up to those who refused to give up their power to allow new lights to shine, no matter how successful they were.
Speaking of power, the person who has literally written the book on educational empowerment for the poor has produced his own story, and path breaking insights into how a black man, who started his student activism and career crusading for black power would come to understand the importance of once-untenable alliances and spawn a new movement of real equity and justice for kids that unites people across all the traditional dividing lines.
Howard Fuller's No Struggle, No Progress is not just a personal history and a chronology of one man's journey, but a reminder of what it really means to be in a country that offers opportunity -- but not without struggle. And no matter what one's race, class or point of view is on issues, or how far apart our numerous cultures sometimes are or seem, Howard shows us that it is nevertheless possible to be aligned in support of policies that truly yield great education for everyone, which can only happen when power truly is extended to the powerless.
Extending power to others to control their own educational destinies more often than not requires one to ignore old alliances and comfortable relationships in favor of giving parents and children the choice to leave the majority of failing schools ill-serving the least advantaged among us. Howard shows us that you can't see the reasonable course to take if the only people you are listening to are those who agree with you and those who are protecting what you yourselves have had. To truly embrace progress, you need to review who you are, and why your allegiances are what they are.
If you're a union person (which Howard Fuller once was), it means recognizing that there are some things you just can't abide in your union. If you're a black person who is used to being told by the typical civil rights groups that respecting traditional federal, state, and local governments to do the job for your kids is the solution, it takes looking at the data and the cause yourself to understand what Howard and scores of people of color -- the majority, in fact -- understand; that if the current situation is not working for your kids TODAY, you should have access to something that does. And if you're a white, elite, defender of the status quo because it worked for your kids, your community and is reinforced throughout the news media daily, it takes looking at what got you to where you are to become part of the solution.
That's the vision Wyatt T. Walker had in co-founding the Sisulu Charter. That's the eye that Steve Klinsky had as that Wall Street investor-turned charter school crusader who recognized that without educational excellence, civil rights is a hollow term. And that's the view Howard Fuller had as he looked back on his life and the conditions that made him who he was -- a strong family infrastructure despite being broken and poor; a school foundation (Catholic, though he wasn't) that held him to high expectations; college and career environments that showed him that people from other races and religions have good ideas and not all people from one's own race are right just because they look the same; and an appreciation of the need to dig into social injustice and understand why the best country on earth can still produce some of the worst schools in the world.
And so, Howard Fuller has devoted his life to correcting that failure, which was at heart of the movement that created that light in Harlem, and went on to influence an entire state, and a city that once was considered to be one of the top failures in the country and is now more competitive educationally, economically and socially than most other major cities where little or no reform has taken place.
How this happened is a critical lesson for anyone who claims to care about education. Caring is not about writing a check or supporting the local PTA. Caring is not about voicing support for teachers or sending supplies to a poor school. Caring is actually about doing something: changing a law, starting a school, changing the culture.
The nation's schools have improved -- from New York to Washington to Milwaukee and hundreds of places in between -- not because of federal or local policy but because of education reforms and reformers that put people and results first. They are better because educational choice -- and the freedom in guiding one's own education -- is the necessary precondition for power. Make no mistake: that power once extended to people in and around our schools, with accountability for how that power is used, is the leverage that has caused the traditional system and its stewards to morph, albeit slowly, toward a more consumer centric, accountable model of schooling.
We have a long way to go, and yet these history lessons can help us accelerate the pace of reform that is critical to the United States of America once again being a beacon of education for all, which is inextricably linked to righting so many wrongs and deficiencies in our communities.
Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. You cannot repair what you do not understand and you cannot know how to do so unless you know what works. Those who have paved the way can teach us, however, with their mistakes and their successes. That the same battles Fuller, Klinsky, Walker and the Sisulu charter school team fought are somehow still at play some 18 years later, is exhausting. Mayor Bill de Blasio's words of anger and criticism today are almost identical to the hyperbole spewed when Walker and Klinsky first engaged in education reform. Similarly, the claims that Howard Fuller heard as he began to take up new solutions to solving the education crisis for poor children are as common as weeds these days, despite being patently false.
As I often say, it's like a passing parade, and just when you think everyone has seen the elephants, there's a whole other crowd of people just coming to the parade that are seeing them for the first time.
That's why we engage, it's why we fight, and it's why we must be thankful for those who took the time to write books like No Struggle, No Progress and A Light Shines in Harlem. Read them and turn to them often, like you would a Wikipedia search. Only remember that the richness of the realities you'll find in these books is foundational, and can actually change lives.