Despite an increasing awareness that the U.S. public education system offers widely differing educational opportunities to different ethnic and income groups, the system will change for the better only when it is exposed to competition from charter schools or vouchers, said former U.S. Representative Reverend Floyd H. Flake, speaking in Chicago on October 16 at the Nineteenth Anniversary Annual Benefit for The Heartland Institute.
“If we do not take a stand [for school choice] now, the problem will only worsen,” Flake said. As long as the public school system poorly educates young people, leaving them with few skills to earn a decent living, it spawns a criminal environment of “internal terrorism” where robberies become more prevalent and where wars are fought to control turf for selling illegal drugs. Now, warned Flake, that environment is spreading from urban areas to bordering communities.
“The problem does not go away; the problem merely changes its address,” he said. “Geographical boundaries are not strong enough to keep the problem from coming and following us. We cannot run far enough to get away from the problem if we don’t solve the problem of properly educating our young people.”
Flake has had first-hand experience restoring the health of an urban community. As senior pastor of the 10,000-member Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, for the past 21 years, he has transformed Allen into one of the nation’s foremost Christian churches and non-profit corporations—and one of the Borough of Queens’ three largest private-sector employers. The church has a 500-student private school, is involved in expansive commercial and residential development, and operates commercial and social service enterprises.
As a proponent of market-oriented community and economic development, Flake sponsored several innovative legislative initiatives to revitalize urban commercial and residential communities while he was a member of Congress. Passed with broad bipartisan support, those initiatives include the 1993 Bank Enterprise Act, whose provisions have increased private-sector capital flow in communities with declining economic fortunes.
While in Congress, Flake found his strong stand on school choice upset members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and so he persuaded then-chairman Rep. Maxine Waters to allow him to present and defend his views to the Caucus. He pointed out that all the blacks in Congress—himself included—had their children attending private schools. He also pointed out that the districts represented by Black Caucus members were the lowest-performing districts in their states.
After he had shared this information with Caucus members and explained his reasons for advocating school choice, many of them came up to him and whispered in his ear, “I’m supporting what you are about, but I cannot come out and publicly support it.”
The great challenge, said Flake, is how to get lawmakers “to come out of the closet and deal with reality.” If this system is not good enough for your child, he told Caucus members, it is not good enough for any child.
Starting a School
When Flake started the parochial school at Allen AME Church 20 years ago, people thought he had lost his mind. They don’t think that way now. This year, Allen’s students scored as high as the highest-performing public schools in the city.
Those scores were achieved despite the school having taken in a number of special education students. What Allen administrators discovered was that those students were simply young people with behavioral problems—not students who had disabilities and could not learn. In the Allen school environment, they know disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. As a result, the school has been able to graduate all its special education students.
“Some people believe that every child can learn, and, in the right environment, learning can indeed take place,” explained Flake. “When a child walks into our school with a uniform on, they understand that it’s a disciplined environment and that we will put you out of the school if you do not perform, not necessarily academically, but certainly in terms of behavior. Then they automatically change.”
Flake was harshly critical of how students with behavioral problems are handled in the public schools, where they often are placed in special education since teachers and administrators don’t seem to know what to do with such children.
“I am convinced [special education] needs to be eliminated,” said Flake, pointing out that special education has created its own cottage industry for lawyers, teachers, and administrators. At the same time, the federal government is pushing dollars into the program on the assumption that the young people going into special education eventually come out of it.
“The truth is: they don’t,” said Flake, explaining students usually stay in the program until they drift off into the streets. Lacking the necessary skills to provide for themselves, they look for other ways and begin committing acts of crime. Those acts of crime ultimately lead to a growing population of persons who are incarcerated. As a result, said Flake, “we’re continually spending more and more dollars trying to build jails in which to house them.”
Affirmative action would not be necessary if everyone in America had access to a quality education, noted Flake. But as long as public education is controlled by a monopoly that determines who gets a quality education and who doesn’t, “there will always be some who are left behind,” he said.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].