We Cannot Afford to Wait Any Longer

Published September 1, 1998

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 renewal projects.

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 anywhere.

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 school.

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 children?

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 divided.

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 to that?

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.