We Cannot Afford to Wait Any Longer
While the clout of most politicians declines after leaving office, just the opposite is
happening to former Democratic Congressman Floyd H. Flake.
After resigning last year to devote himself to his church ministry in Queens, New York,
Flake's range of influence has widened significantly as his call for school vouchers has
been heard across party lines and across the country, bringing him recognition as a major
national spokesperson for the gathering school choice movement.
Introducing the Rev. Dr. Flake as a politician is perhaps a little unfair, because he
is first a minister and an educator. He added to his resume the role of Congressman for 11
years, representing a middle-class, predominantly black community in Queens, where he is
senior pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church. When he was appointed
pastor in 1976, church members numbered 1,400. Now, he ministers to a congregation of
9,000 with a new $23 million cathedral, a private elementary school, and several community
Although a recent article in Policy Review referred to Flake as "a
maverick Democrat" because his advocacy of school vouchers puts him out of step with
the leaders of his party, a number of recent polls indicate that Flake's views are solidly
in step with those of most African-Americans, who would opt out of public schools if they
had the chance. Fresh from a debate in New Orleans on education and civil rights, Flake
recently spoke with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes.
Clowes: How did your views on school choice develop? The
Democratic party and Democrats in general tend not to be in favor of the kind of school
choice that you advocate.
Flake: My position has developed over the years. It goes back to my
beginnings, to my very first job in 1967 as a social worker with Head Start. Even back
then, we were realizing that young people who were graduating from Head Start with second-
and third-grade capabilities were not at that same level, or did not move at the same
pace, once they had gotten into the public sector. As a matter of fact, most second- and
third-graders still tested at second- and third-grade levels, even though that was the
level they had when they entered public education.
Clowes: So their "head start" really didn't get them
Flake: They didn't really go anywhere because the system was not
capable of managing accelerated students.
From 1970 to 1976, I was divided between three years at Lincoln University and three
years at Boston University. I saw that we were getting a number of students from the
public schools who were not prepared properly for higher education. My feelings were that,
in order to prepare them properly, it would be necessary to give them a competent
educational base from the bottom up, i.e. preschool through at least the eighth grade.
Then, for the most part, they would be able to survive even if they got into a bad high
So in 1976, when I was asked by my bishop to pastor the Allen AME Church, my question
to them was: Were they willing to get involved in education? And if so, would they be
willing to consider building a school?
I was pretty much ahead of the curve. The damning statistics had not reached the
proportions that they have now, but even then it was clear that there was something wrong
within the system. As a person who now is engaged in community development--building
homes, building our own school, and buying up non-performing properties--I've come to
realize that, even in a middle-class African-American community like this, people are not
making the choice to live here in large measure because of what they see as the travesties
in the public school system.
Clowes: So the problem in your community is the same one that most
big-city mayors are facing: The middle-class move out as soon as they have school-age
Flake: That's right. The white middle-class have already gone, the
black middle-class are very close behind, and it's only a matter of time before the
Hispanic middle-class will be doing the same thing. The one concern that I find people
have in a community like this is: "If I'm going to invest in a twenty- to thirty-year
amortization of my property, am I going to be able to get my children educated without
having to spend extra dollars for private education?" The answer generally is
"No." So they move out to where they can be guaranteed that they do not have to
pay for private education. Although they pay more in taxes, this guarantee offsets the
difference, and so they are willing to move into those communities.
Clowes: And only the people who can't move out--the poor--stay in
the inner city?
Flake: That's correct, which supports my thesis against those who
would argue that if you have vouchers you will have a balkanization of the poor and the
left-behind. The reality is, that has already occurred in most cities. The
"creaming" process that people are arguing against has already taken place.
Clowes: You don't agree with Education Secretary Riley, then, that
vouchers would divide communities? What you're saying is that the communities are already
Flake: Without a doubt. I see public education in four tiers.
- Tier one is basically the suburban education, which, for the most part, is very good;
- Tier two is those who are able to get out: by moving, or giving false addresses, or
doing whatever they find necessary to get a good education;
- Tier three represents the predominant population of urban students, generally with no
hope of getting out or no hope of being able to get a quality education within the system;
- The fourth tier is the one that people don't talk about, where kids are dropped into
special education when the system doesn't know what to do with them. For the most part,
those kids never come out of special ed because the amount of dollars going in to support
special education per student is far greater than it is for the regular student.
Clowes: Why is there such a dramatic difference in opinion on
school vouchers between you and, for example, the NAACP?
Flake: I think the NAACP has been wed to its notion of civil rights
based on the needs of the past--prior to 1964-65, with the Voter Rights Act and all of
those changes. The challenge that they face is the reality that urban communities have
disintegrated since that point. They have not found the need to reassess their historical
positions, deal with the reality of the failures, and come up with new ideas.
As Colin Powell told them a few days ago, if they are serious about being a civil
rights group, then they're going to have to consider the questions of educating our
children and rebuilding our communities--which is basically what I've been saying for a
number of years.
Clowes: A few days ago, Sandra Feldman, the president of the
American Federation of Teachers, said that it was morally outrageous for advocates of
vouchers to appropriate the language of the civil rights movement. How would you respond
Flake: I think hers is an inappropriate response to what is occurring
on the part of parents who believe that their civil rights have been denied by virtue of
the fact that they are not getting either access to a quality education or getting a
quality education in the communities where they have chosen to live. As a matter of fact,
I just came back from New Orleans. I was a debater on the opposite side of Chris Edley,
who was in the Harvard Civil Rights Foundation. They invited us in to debate the theme,
"Public Education: A Civil Right."
Public education is not a civil right. What is a civil right is equal access to a
quality education for all, which is affirmed by Brown v. Board of Education in
1954. The Constitution does not say that quality education, or equal education, has to be
delivered through the public education system, it merely says that the responsibility of
the government is to provide for it.
Clowes: The usual response of the public school establishment to
voucher proposals is that "You're giving up on the public schools. Why don't you work
on improving the public schools as is being done, for example, in Chicago--put someone
like Paul Vallas in charge, try proven approaches, and work to improve public
schools?" How do you respond to that?
Flake: That's what they threw at me as the last point in the debate in
New Orleans. I responded that "I cannot afford to wait for them to bring about the
necessary changes." Even if you bring in a quality person, as they did in Chicago,
the reality is that you're not going to change the system overnight. We are told to wait
until such reforms take place, but we cannot afford to wait any longer.
For every year that a child loses right now, it will take three or four years to make
up. And if they try to make it up within the current system, the likelihood is that--just
like those Head Start kids--they would not make it up. At best, they would remain at the
same place, which means they fall further behind.
Clowes: If there's one message that you'd like to communicate to
our readers, what would that be?
Flake: Believing that this problem will simply go away if we do a
tremendous public relations job is a notion that is bound to fail. Parents have already
demonstrated that if there is an alternative to public education, they will leave. There's
also an understanding that if the system itself turns around, parents will stay. For
example, they have made great efforts to turn the system around in Community Board 4 here
in New York City.
People are demanding quality and they will get it, whether they get it through
legislative processes or through some other mechanism. They are prepared to go as far out
as the radical notion of vouchers because they believe that, long-term, their child is
more important than politics and educational philosophy.
Clowes: So the public schools have an urgent job of getting their
act together pretty quickly?
Flake: That's right. If they don't, they will see alternative forces
that are going to take portions of their market share.
Clowes: Finally, in light of the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court
decision in favor of the Milwaukee voucher program, do you feel that we're approaching a
major turnaround in public opinion and policy, or do you see a continued long struggle?
Flake: I see a continued struggle, but I think the Milwaukee situation
makes the struggle more worthwhile because people can see that there are some who are
shining lights at the end of the tunnel, and they can see where the light is. I think this
is the most significant judicial decision since Brown v. Board of Education.