With the help of generous funders such as the Bradley and Walton Foundations, former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller founded BAEO to increase African-American support for the school voucher movement. BAEO grew out of conferences on school vouchers and African Americans that Fuller hosted at Marquette University, where he runs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL).
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Fuller served as Dean of General Education at the Milwaukee Area Technical College for two years and then headed up the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services from 1988 to 1991. Fuller began to make a name for himself nationally by first devising an unsuccessful plan to create a separate black school district in 1987, and later becoming a prominent supporter of school vouchers in Milwaukee.
Fuller’s 1991 appointment as Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) was a surprise to many in the community more accustomed to Fuller being “one of the school system’s most vocal critics,” as Education Week put it.56 The state legislature passed a special law exempting Fuller from the requirement that he have three years of pre-collegiate teaching experience before he could be confirmed to the post.57
In addition to supporting the Milwaukee voucher program, Fuller indicated his support for privatization efforts in other ways during his four-year stint as superintendent. He promoted state legislation to broaden Wisconsin’s charter laws to allow private firms to run public schools without the use of district employees.
Later, Fuller considered contracts from two for-profit school management firms, the Edison Project and Education Alternatives Inc. – the latter a company owned and operated by BAEO funder John Walton – to run school-to-work programs. No deal, however, was ever finalized. Fuller also invited RAND Institute researcher and privatization advocate Paul T. Hill to speak to MPS administrators. Hill’s 1995 RAND report, “Reinventing Public Education,” details how to replace “the entire existing public education governance system” with a contracting system.58
Fuller resigned as superintendent in 1995 following school board elections in which four of five candidates backed by the teachers’ union were elected. He said he did not want to face “death by a thousand cuts”59 from a school board critical of his agenda. After his resignation, Fuller founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL) at Marquette University with significant financial help from the Bradley Foundation. ITL provides assistance to charter schools, runs Technology Resource Centers in Milwaukee and supports school voucher programs.
In 1998, Fuller became involved in city education policy again, this time as chair of the charter school review committee.60 Some local elected officials expressed concern over potential conflicts of interest because Fuller’s wife, Deborah McGriff, works for the Edison Project, which operates charter schools in several cities. Fuller said that he would act appropriately if a conflict arose.61
In 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush asked Fuller to join his education policy advisory team, a group that included fellows from right-wing thinks tanks like the Hoover Institution and the Hudson Institute.62