Nearing the end of a typical 12-hour day, Howard Fuller slumps wearily in his office chair. But as he begins to talk, he sits taller, and his eyes shine. Two decades ago, he was organizing poor workers in the South. Today, Fuller is still crusading--as superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools. On this recent day, he has met with the district's 157 principals, lunched with executives to discuss funding, and ended the afternoon in a heated exchange with parents and teachers of a community school. "As I got older," says Fuller, 54, "I realized I couldn't change the world, so I decided to work on the lives of children. The struggle is to make sure all kids get the best education possible."
Once an outsider, Fuller now sits at the epicenter of a blaze of reforms sweeping Milwaukee's classrooms. The nation's 15th-largest urban district is among the most aggressive systems overhauling American urban education. From Milwaukee's south side, with its ethnic stew of Hispanics and Eastern Europeans, to the predominantly black north side, Fuller is helping principals and teachers break free of suffocating rules imposed by state and city bureaucrats. Together, they're wresting back control over school spending.
The city's educators and business leaders, meantime, have gone the furthest in the country in tying classroom learning to the labor market. In three years, the world of work will be a key piece of the curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade. Blue chips such as A.O. Smith Corp. and Allen-Bradley Co. help train teachers in total quality concepts. Grades and test scores are inching up--all this in tightfisted times. "Milwaukee is a model for involving the private sector and other community groups," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a network of big-city schools. "It's one of the most risk-taking districts in the country."
Indeed, while politicians and pundits make much mf vouchers, Milwaukee is the only place in the country that actually has such a program. The experiment, which uses public funds for private school, is limited, open to only a fraction of Milwaukee's students. But just the same, it forces some public schools to compete for students and resources. Diverting money away from beleaguered public schools is plenty controversial, but Governor Tommy G. Thompson, a leading Republican reformer, wants to spread vouchers throughout the state--even to religious schools. "We need to expand the definition of public school," says Thompson. "They should serve the public, not necessarily be run by the government."
Milwaukee's innovations shed light on the way forward for U.S. schools as they face shrinking resources and growing enrollments. After two decades of failed reforms, educators have learned at least two lessons: One is that money alone, while important, doesn't help children learn and succeed. The other is that central administrations must loosen their grip so reform can bubble up from the classrooms and communities. Like Corporate America, schools will have to decentralize, learn to compete, and be held accountable. "We have a bureaucratic structure that functioned in an old Industrial Age," says Fuller. "Industry has thrown it away, but we still have it."
EARNINGS GAP. The stakes for Milwaukee, as for the nation, are enormous. A city of 630,000 on Lake Michigan, Milwaukee is a place where solid-paying manual jobs in breweries and machine shops have given way to a more
diverse workforce. While the city boasts sophisticated manufacturing and prosperous financial services, these high-skilled, high-paid jobs are beyond the reach of a growing segment of the population. On any given day, more than one in five high school students fail to show up for class, and companies find that more and more graduates can't handle basic math and writing, let alone computers. "That kind of performance is unacceptable," says Robert J. O'Toole, chairman of auto-parts maker A.O. Smith.
Milwaukee's economic divide is much like that of other cities, only a bit worse. It tends to draw more students from poor families: 73% of its kids receive free or subsidized lunches, compared with 58/% for all cities. Milwaukee schools receive $7,031 in public funds per child, more than the national average of $6,100. But that number reflects its dependence on federal and state funding. Now, proposed cuts in federal spending, which contributes 10% of Milwaukee's $769 million school budget, are endangering school lunches and drug-abuse education. Meanwhile, enrollment, totaling 103,000, has been growing steadily for five years, adding about 1,000 kids a year.
At the same time, Wisconsin, like lots of other states, is shifting more of the burden of school financing from local property taxes to state general revenues. That will leave the state picking up an extra $1.2 billion for schools next year, or two-thirds of the total, up from 51%. If the state's strong economy turns down, "it will be a major fiscal challenge to meet our school-funding obligations with all of the other priorities in state government," worries Mark D. Bugher, Wisconsin's secretary of revenue.
The city's history of segregation also has taken a toll on the schools. Two out of three students are bused to school, the result of a 1976 court order. But race relations remain volatile. And some schools must cope with gangs, neo-Nazis, and warring Serbian and Croatian students. Busing's other legacy: It has destroyed neighborhood schools and left thousands of parents far from their children's classrooms.
Still, many in Milwaukee are cautiously optimistic. For that, they credit Fuller, who was appointed in 1991. Fuller spent much of the '60s and early '70s using a Swahili name--Owusu Sadauki--while he organized hospital workers in North Carolina. After coming home to Milwaukee in the 1980s, he held several state jobs. While a college administrator, he agitated for a separate black school system that would shift power to parents and upgrade black education.
The choice of Fuller as superintendent turned out to be a canny one. A product of Milwaukee's public schools and its tough housing projects, he was also an outsider with no teaching experience. While the teachers union and its supporters on the school board are often at odds with Fuller, most Milwaukeeans are cheering him on. "He has given most of the teachers, principals, and companies some hope that there's something salvageable," says Ted A. Hutton, of electronics maker Allen-Bradley.
From the start, Fuller began mapping a vision of Milwaukee's schools as semi-autonomous units that would compete for kids and buy and sell services from a streamlined administration. Fuller has been giving principals some say over picking teachers. He's also letting schools control more of their funds. Before, the central administration had power over a school's entire budget. Now, it controls roughly 80%, and Fuller wants to go further. "You have to break up the monopoly," he says. "All of the adults have been organized to protect their interests. You run into union contracts, board mandates, state mandates, and the tremendous intangible--the way it's always been done."
Fuller also has moved quickly to toughen up the curriculum and to hold teachers and principals accountable. He laid down 20 achievement goals that range from 90% high school attendance to above-average reading scores for 85% of third graders. Last fall, he started ranking each school in an annual district "report card." For those schools that repeatedly come up short, Fuller and the school board are threatening to close them down. The pace is slow, but some progress is being made. Fifth graders are beating their targets in writing, and third graders in reading. High schoolers' grade-point averages inched up from a miserable D+ in 1991 to C- in 1994, while dropout rates for entering seniors fell from 17.4% in 1993 to 15.4% in 1994.
Fuller gives his principals unprecedented freedom to experiment. And Alexander Hamilton High School principal Clark Lovell is taking full advantage. Part disciplinarian, part innovator, Lovell labors to hold together the raucous mix of ethnic groups in his 1,900-student school on Milwaukee's southwest side. He sets high standards and is unrelenting. "I consider this school to be different," Lovell asserts. "I expect my kids to be above average."
Lovell is pioneering what's now known as the school-to-work concept: linking learning to the work world. Lovell and his teachers are rearranging the curriculum to eliminate rigid barriers between such subjects as math and history, and they're encouraging students to work in teams. He also is creating a series of specialties--business and finance, arts and sciences--and is soliciting support from local institutions.
As part of Milwaukee's school-to-work project, Firstar Bank Milwaukee helped design the curriculum for the four-year business and finance cluster, and its managers will teach some classes. For students who complete the coursework, Firstar will guarantee employment; for those who go on to college, it will provide summer jobs. This is what President Bill Clinton had in mind when he helped push school-to-work legislation last year. Out of the $100 million in seed money for such programs, Milwaukee has received $2.9 million.
TVs AND SAVINGS BONDS. Conceding that the sheer beauty of learning, even in this new environment, may not be enough to lure all students, Lovell is dangling other enticements. To get kids to show up and then do well, he's handing out prizes, from color TVs to savings bonds, to top performers. About 400 kids are recognized every term, and $5,000 in gift certificates and bonds--donated by local merchants--is handed out annually.
Lovell thinks the prizes are a key reason that grade-point averages have risen from C- to C+ in the past 18 months and that 60% fewer students were counted as tardy. Parents like the prizes, too. In a recent survey, they rated the three-year-old program as one of the features they liked most about Hamilton, even though some parents and students deride the program as bribery.
Across town, at Silver Spring Elementary School, the incentives are more sophisticated. There, each class has set up a "company"--among them, Candyland USA and Paper, Pencil & Gift Co. Students are learning how to interview for executive positions and how to buy and sell. In January, fifth graders opened the First Student Run Bank, taking in $1,000 in deposits from fellow students. The school's business patron, Associated Bank Milwaukee (a grown-up bank), provides a savings account to each student who deposits $10. "We teach the kids how to put money in the bank and how to save," says Merinda Carter, the 10-year-old elected president by her peers and who runs the bank out of a storage closet. "We're learning about what we have to do later in life."
America's road to school reform is littered with ideas killed off by bureaucrats and union leaders. That's why so many reform efforts focus on setting up schools outside the system. The charter concept, which allows communities to form schools from scratch, is catching on: Authorized in 11 states, charter schools usually operate independently of school boards and free of union contracts. Wisconsin has a more limited charter law: A testament to the clout of the teachers union, the law forbids abrogation of contracts and authorizes only 10 new schools statewide. Governor Thompson, spurred on by Fuller, is pushing legislation that would lift such restrictions.
In the meantime, Milwaukee has created its own charterlike school, Hi-Mount Community School. It sprang to life last year in a hulking red-brick building on the west side. Hi-Mount is run by a 20-member community board comprising parents, businesspeople, and union leaders, which has broad powers to hire and fire the principal and teachers--although the school board retains some jurisdiction. And the community board controls nearly two-thirds of Hi-Mount's budget.
Winning over the teachers was key. Previous attempts to bring together teachers and administrators had fallen apart over turf battles. This time, Fuller and Mary Bills, the school board president, encouraged Hi-Mount principal Spencer Korte and a group of teachers to give the union a big role on the board. The planners also sold their idea to rank-and-file teachers at Hi-Mount. The sales pitch emphasized that the union contract would still hold but that teachers would gain a say in the budget process and in the design of a new curriculum. Once teachers bought the idea, the union offered up its own compromise, freeing the board to determine staffing and to alter class schedules. "Those are revolutionary concepts for a teachers' union," says Sam Carmen, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Assn.
Carmen points to Hi-Mount as proof that the teachers union isn't the enemy. The union says it is now talking with 20 schools seeking various contract waivers, a la Hi-Mount. But in Milwaukee and elsewhere, the union draws the line at privatization and vouchers. "These cut at the heart of the union," Carmen says.
In 1991, an unusual collection of supporters--Republican and Democrat, rich and poor--pushed through a state voucher law. It allows up to 1.5% of Milwaukee's student population, about 1,500 kids, to apply for places at 12 private schools. For each student taken in, 830 this school year, the state pays $3,209 a year. The rest is paid by parents or through fund-raising.
TWISTS AND TURNS. Few people are dispassionate about vouchers. Annette "Polly" Williams, a Democratic state legislator who helped push the voucher law, insists that the public system is nearly hopeless. "I will not waste my time trying to change the system," she says. "This is all about saving children." Opponents are equally emphatic. Insists school board President Bills: Vouchers are a "smokescreen for reduced funding of public education."
But while the adults debate, Milwaukee's experiment provides little evidence so far that children gain or lose simply by changing to private school. John Witte, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who has studied the voucher program since it started, found that in academic achievement, measured since 1990, the children who went to private schools performed no better than those in public schools--although parental satisfaction is much higher.
Several factors may be responsible for this. Witte points out that it is wrong to assume that private schools will always turn out better students. He also notes that many "voucher kids" came from far poorer families than the average in public school, and that many of them had been underperformers. Witte's final word on vouchers: "There's no miracle here, but there's no devastation of public education, either."
Milwaukee's experience shows the twists and turns a genuine effort at reform can take. When all the players--parents, teachers, principals, business leaders--come together, things can happen. Along with many others, Fuller is working hard to keep Milwaukee's fragile coalition intact. He knows it can break apart, perhaps in a power struggle with the teachers union if he pushes too hard. But the reforms he has helped unleash will outlive his tenure. There will always be principals such as Rose Guajardo, who has turned Kagel Elementary School, in one of Milwaukee's most impoverished, gang-ridden neighborhoods, into one of the best performers in Wisconsin. "This is not a job," she says, "it's a mission." For teachers, parents, and principals across the country, turning around America's schools is nothing less.