Fresh Thinking about Federal Education Policy, continued
FEATURED SPEAKER: The Hon. Floyd Flake
How The Federal Government Can Best Help Urban Youth
CHECKER FINN: It's a considerable honor to introduce someone whose strong voice we miss in the federal education policy wars. We are pleased to welcome him back into the fray once again this morning. We also hope that heíll stick with the fight for the next 18 months as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) gets re-authorized. Please join me in welcoming the former United States Senator from Indiana, the Honorable Dan Coats.
Sen. DAN COATS: Checker, thank you very much. When Townsend Lang, who used to work for me, called the other day and said, "I have a task for you on Tuesday at noon," it reminded me of a time when Townsend called me every day to tell me what my tasks were. The first thing I told her was ďNo, Townsend, I can't do it. I'm busy. One of the reasons I left the Senate is that you gave me too many tasks to do." Incidentally, thatís not the real reason I left, and they were all good tasks. But I told Townsend, "I can't do it.Ē She said, "Well, I was going to ask you to introduce Floyd Flake." And I said, "I'll be there."
Thatís because seldom do you come across someone who embodies faith in action the way Floyd Flake does. Not too long ago Floyd picked me up at New Yorkís Penn Station so that the two of us could call on the editorial boards of The New York Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to talk about educational choice. Then I had the privilege of traveling with him to the Allen A.M.E. church in Jamaica, in the Queens section of New York, and to see for myself the remarkable transformation of an entire community. And it was all under the aegis of the Allen A.M.E. church and under the direction of then-Congressman Floyd Flake.
If you're looking for a model of how to rebuild inner-cities, if you're looking for a model of how to restore communities, and, more importantly, if you're looking for a model of how to transform not only places but peopleís lives, start with the Allen A.M.E. Church. It has a gifted pastor, Reverend Flake, who somehow administers to parishioners numbering in the tens of thousands, while also providing services that run from senior care, Head Start and WIC programs to helping people start and run their own businesses and purchase their own homes.
One of his core programs is a dynamic school of 500 or more students who all graduate, almost all of whom go to college, and who basically defy all of the predictions that kids from this area canít make it. The school demonstrates that not only can these kids make it, they can also excel, if given the opportunity.
While in Congress we teamed up on some initiatives to provide scholarships for low-income children from the District of Columbia because mothers were coming to us begging for educational opportunities their children didn't have. They would say there are only three ways my kid can get out of here: entertainment, sports or drug dealing, and the odds of making it in pro-football or as an entertainment star are pretty slim. The mothers would tell us the education theyíre getting isnít preparing them for anything and that they would not even be able to go on in school. And all too often the alternative becomes drugs, and that is a road to death.
So we attempted to give school choice to those who didnít have it within the District. People with money have a choice. If they don't like their neighborhood public school they can attend parochial or private schools. But it's the low-income families who don't have the wherewithal to give their child a choice, and are forced to send their children to what is often a failed, crime-ridden drug-infested public school system.
We passed that legislation, but unfortunately it was vetoed, so the challenge still remains. But the issues being discussed today are extraordinarily important to the future of America, especially our children. So, it's my great privilege to introduce to you someone whom I greatly admire, someone who has not only talked the talk, but walked the walk, Rev. Floyd Flake.
Rev. FLOYD FLAKE:Thank you very much, Dan, and it is good to be here with all of you today. I'm especially grateful for the opportunity to be introduced by Sen. Coats. I'm going to tell you what they keep telling me since I've left politics: I look better, I look more rested, and I look like I should have left a long time ago. The same is true for you Dan. You look good, like retirement is agreeing with you.
Of course, my wife also says this is the first year we won't have to borrow money to pay taxes and tuition, so it's good to be out. I'm also glad to be speaking in Washington with the knowledge that during the course of my remarks the bells won't go off and they won't be calling me to the House chamber for a vote. Thatís what usually happened when I gave speeches here in the old days.
We're all here today because Checker Finn called. And when he calls, you know that you have an obligation to go to work. And when he puts you to work, he makes it easy for you because he provides you an outline, he tells you what he wants you to do, and he even tells you what he wants you to say. Unfortunately I'm a preacher, so every now and then I may drift into scripture, Checker, and deviate some from the outline.
I'm certainly grateful to the Manhattan Institute for giving me an opportunity to be a Senior Fellow with them and working with them on various issues, such as education and others that have an impact on urban communities.
The topic that I was asked to discuss is how the federal government can best help our youth. I think we start with the basic premise that in order for America to be a better place, it has an obligation to give to every young person an opportunity to be the best person he or she can be, based on their God-given potential. With that understanding, it seems to me that the role of the United States is to try to assure that every child in this nation has access to what I consider the primary commodity one needs to compete successfully. All of our children must be able to survive and even excel in this democracy when theyíre up against other young people coming from other communities, be they suburban, rural or urban.
Our challenge then becomes to find means by which we can create educational opportunities, because education is the key that opens the door for the possibility of ultimate success in this society in which we live. Itís not only true of America, but internationally as well. When children understand that they do not possess the skills they need to compete effectively, it often times leaves them with low self-esteem, with a sense of hopelessness about their ability to provide for the needs of themselves, the needs of their families, and create a future that assures them of a closing of that economic gap that seems to exist between people in this nation.
Our challenge becomes letting them know that the government is concerned about making the promise of equal education of every American, the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, a reality. We would all have to agree that we have not reached the place where we hoped to be here at the end of the century. We are not there in large measure because there has been a reversal of standards, a reversal of expectations, and therefore, a lack of an ability to create access for every child to participate in America. The disadvantaged children, the minority kids of urban communities, often find themselves in a position where promises are made, reform is almost guaranteed, and yet the reform does not come. And then parents are told to be patient. And the children are told to wait. And over time they will be able to participate.
Well, let me tell you, every year that is lost is another opportunity that is lost. Every year that is lost guarantees hundreds of children enter the criminal justice system, because without education thatís what they can look forward to.
Looking at where we head from here, I think we have to look at quantitative and qualitative aspects of what is promised. Because the elements are there, but they have not been properly shaken to get the results we want.
The other day I opened my refrigerator and took out a carton of orange juice and poured it into a glass. As I drank, I realized that it did not taste the way that it should, and therefore I said something must be wrong. I looked at the date on the carton to make sure the juice was still drinkable, and I realized it was still okay. Then I noticed that on the carton were written the words "shake before drinking." And I realized that the problem was not that the proper elements werenít there. They were. The fact was, it just needed shaking up.
The reality is education in America needs a good shaking up. The elements are there, but many of them have settled on the bottom and we have not been able to provide the kind of education we want for every child.
Therefore, when we talk about qualitative education, we ought to be doing the same things at the elementary and secondary level that we do in higher education. Itís an approach I began to appreciate when I was Dean of Students at Boston University and Associate Dean at Lincoln University. What I realized was that government Ė the federal government - made funds available by essentially putting money in a studentís backpack, and then allowing them to go to whatever school they chose. Thatís important to understand. Because once the money follows the child, then the child is able to make the choice. Then the child understands they have freedom and resources they can bring to bear in the educational environment.
Those of us who've been on Capitol Hill know that often the primary concern of people in government is not product, but fooling people with smoke and mirrors. It has to do with passing a bill people will buy, even if it is nothing more than an illusion. Often programs, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, are just designed to maintain the status quo. It often seems that this particular piece of legislation is more focused on middle-class people who move in and out of disadvantaged communities. It often seems itís about protecting people who may not be as concerned about lifting young people to a level where they know they can do more than dunk a basketball or sing a song or run about on a football field.
Our great challenge then becomes trying to force the government to do what it ought to do. The governmentís business is not merely developing policy, but translating policy to process and creating an end product. And that end product should be students with all of the qualitative skills and abilities needed to stand up and proclaim that they are not there simply because of color. They must be able to stand up and say that affirmative action programs did not open a door and then allow them to come in, but rather that they came in because they had skills and abilities and talents. And once they're in, they need not worry about having to leave simply because some program changed, because they have the tools to survive and the tools to compete.
As we look back in time, it becomes very clear to me that our responsibility as citizens of this nation is to challenge the federal government to begin the process of completely overhauling our educational system. I mean a real serious shaking up from top to bottom, a re-thinking and replacement of many of the current structures. Many of them are so outdated that they are no longer useful. The process must also involve a challenge to the academy, because if the academy does not produce teachers who are capable of functioning in urban communities, then we will find that students and parents will continue to expect too little of the system and of themselves and nothing will change.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is based on some flawed principles that I want to talk about. As I address some of those, I also want to talk a bit about new directions I believe the government should take.
As I stated earlier, in higher education, young people are allowed to take their grants, whether they be Pell Grants, or the National Defense Student Grant that I received during my five years in college, or whatever, with them. It took me five years to graduate because my parents could not afford to pay my tuition and I took a year off to make some money to go with my National Defense loan.
But the reality was that I had a desire and a determination to achieve, and if you want to hear more about that, read my new book. Checker, allow me to get my commercial in. Everybody, please read my new book, which will be on the bookshelves May 1, and is called The Way of the Bootstrapper. You'll get an idea of how I was able to overcome a segregated background and a school where only four teachers were responsible for eight grades. But the students in that school were instilled with a sense that they had within them the capability and the competency to achieve beyond the expected level.
Our challenge is how to change the basic pattern of education by allowing young people to make more choices. The reason is that we must get young people into institutions that both see their potential and work to bring it out, and keep them from institutions that stunt their development simply because they donít know how to deal with a child who can handle an accelerated curriculum.
We must understand that federal and state money are provided to help our young people have access to an education that will help them in the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to which all Americans are entitled. Governments must do that, and schools must incorporate that understanding into their mission as well. We cannot continue to write checks to institutions, to boards of education, to city governments, or even state governments, and then allow them to do what they want with that tax money without assuring that weíre getting the product this money was intended to produce. I'd like to say that we have to use ďwhatever means necessaryĒ in order to try to assure that every child now gets a good education.
Secondly, we must deal with the whole question of regulation. Dan and I can tell you that wherever government gets an opportunity, what it wants most is to have control. But oftentimes, control becomes such an albatross that even when the dollars are available, they cannot do what they were intended to do. We pass many laws here, but we don't demand much accountability. Then we find ourselves being lobbied to death, to the point that we just keep on doing the same thing, even though itís not working. The area where that happens the most is in education.
I don't want to get into the Microsoft lawsuit, but let me make one observation about the way government works. Microsoft is an entity that has been able to use its creativity, skill, and ability, to create a means by which we could communicate in ways we never thought we would. Then all of a sudden they found themselves in court. I donít want to talk about the merits of the case. But any time government steps in, it generally comes with its own brake pads and begins a process of trying to stop progress Ė instead of seeing that progress continues to take place. The dynamism and creativity necessary in education are often lacking simply because of the amount of rules that we put in place. And the rules are so oriented to the concerns of particular classes and particular lobby groups that ultimately we forget all about creating an environment for learning.
We must then consider what kind of product we want. I tend to think we must open the doors so that we can harness the dynamics and the creativity of both students and teachers. We need a system with much more flexibility, so that everyone does not believe that in each grade there are certain things you have to do and you can't go beyond them. We need a system in which every child and every parent know that if you can function at a higher level, you can actually move out of the system. But if you move out of that system, you ought to be able to take those federal dollars with you, just as you already can in some progressive states.
A third problem is judging how well the money is being spent. There is an illusion that the 1994 amendments to Title I gave the system a more results-oriented focus. I think all of you know thatís not true. So we need to try to develop some new paradigms for measuring the end product and then making sure that resources are not all directed toward processing. We have spent so much money on process that weíre never able to see what kind of product we produce.
So when we consider the ESEA, we must all conclude that we have been defrauded in many ways. We see a level of paralysis in the system, and some of that paralysis is directly attributed to the fact that when the government spends money, it does not demand enough. I have been part of a number of debates and this issue. Checker and I were together in Florida with Secretary Riley and I think his position has been very intractable. He has no interest in looking at ways to change the system. Therefore, I think itís our obligation and responsibility to make the educational structure of this nation aware that itís time to change. This does not mean throwing everything out, but it certainly does mean it's time to shake it up.
How should we begin, then, to make a difference? How can move toward making sure that every child has access to a quality education?
Number one, I think we have to fund the child, just as we do with the Pell Grants in higher education. I don't understand how we can justify this approach at the college level and then argue itís unconstitutional at the elementary and secondary level. It seems to me we have a primary responsibility to get children ready for higher education. But we donít, even with kids who were in Head Start. All too often kids from Head Start are above the curve when they finish the program, but are back at the level of other students after a year or two of public school.
Secondly, I think we must allow all of our states and communities to spend their federal dollars in whatever way they believe best addresses their problems. If we do that, I think that whatever national bill is passed there will be enough flexibility for all young people to know they can move forward in education.
Lastly, I think there must be greater accountability and an emphasis on results rather than input. We have to say every child can and must learn, and we have to begin moving toward the elimination of social promotion. I think social promotion is the worst and most damaging aspect of education today. Young people who get pushed forward based on some sociological notion that staying behind puts them at a disadvantage lose their self-esteem. The worst way to lose self-esteem is thinking you have something, thinking you have an education, and then reaching the marketplace and discovering the marketplace isnít interested in you. So I think it would be better for us to try and deal with problems at the earliest stages of a child's education rather than later, because the ones who canít compete as adults are the ones most likely to make bad choices.
We then must focus on academics and understand that the standards should not be lowered. If anything, the standards should be raised. Everybody should know what the standards are. The United States government's responsibility is to punish those institutions and entities that do not utilize federal resources as they should in trying to make sure that every child has the kind of education that they need. As Checker would say, it's not complicated. Fund the kids and not the schools. Stop telling the states and communities how to spend the money, but hold them accountable for whether their children are learning more. If we do that, I think we have an opportunity to move forward as a country. We have the an opportunity to move forward with individual states, guaranteeing the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we will assure that every child is standing on the same foundation, on the same plain, and has the capability for the future.
So as we look at the system and we see how broken it is, how bankrupt it is, understand that it's bottomed out. And open that refrigerator and say, ''Education is in here, but there's something wrong.'' Shake it up. That's our responsibility. Let's do it. Thank you very much.
QUESTION: I loved everything you said. The question is, how do we get other congressmen representing urban areas to think the same way about school choice, and to realize that some reforms are needed to shake up the system?
Rev. FLAKE:I think the only way we're ever going to get elected officials, even in urban communities where the problems are the worst, to address the problem is to get the parents angry about the reality of what's happening with their children. We do that by giving parents the facts. The problem now is that the illusion has become reality to them. We have to find a sub-system. I tend to think the clergy might be the key. We have to find ways to get directly to parents and show them that they could have alternatives.
Then we have to make these choice programs work. We have to begin getting funding directly to those parents and children. If these families begin taking their kids out of the system, even the elected officials will have to deal with the reality that they are likely to lose in the end. And one thing they generally understand is where they need to be in order to come out looking like a winner, even if they donít support a measure from the beginning.
A classic case is what happened in New York when we were pushing the charter school bill that eventually passed the Legislature. New York Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew and other people gave us a fit. Gov. Pataki called me one night and said he didn't think he could push the bill through. But we had an advantage in that opponents of the bill also wanted a salary increase. I told the governor ďI've been a politician and I guarantee you that (Assembly Minority Leader) Sheldon Silver cannot face his members and tell them they didn't get their salary increase. And he said, "Oh, but they said they would stand on a moral principle and there's no way they're ever going to go for this." And I said, "Their morality is tied to their money and so you keep your position and I guarantee you it will work."
QUESTION: Thank you for raising the issue of the spirituality of education, because this is something that so often gets assumed or lost. As a one-time high school principal, I often used to worry that we failed to support children enough when they were very young, and then over-protected them as they became adolescents. And at that point they donít want to be protected, so it inevitably meant we were on a collision course.
The problems that children are going to have to handle over the next 50 years are much more difficult than perhaps we did in our generation. But the one thing we need to give them is such an abiding confidence and sense of direction that they are able to grow away from us. I believe we canít try to hold them down with a paternalist system at that point. Whatís your opinion of this?
Rev. FLAKE:I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think our problem is that by trying to hold them down, we actually wind up losing them in a different way. In America, unfortunately, thereís almost a direct correlation between our failure to provide quality education and increases in the prison population. I hate to talk about education without talking about dealing with adolescence in general. Itís true that if you take a 10-year-old kid and put them in Special Ed, and if they're still in Special Ed at 14, then you can't bring that kid back into a room of 10-year-olds. What happens is that kid eventually drifts out into the street, and that supports your thesis that you must start the process early on.
But no matter how early you start, you must include a system of rewards for those able to compete successfully, just as we do with most urban kids in athletics or entertainment. So the big leap we have to make is applying all of these lessons to the academic environment. We must help kids get their focus off of all of the things that now seem so important to them but donít give them the tools to provide for the future. So I would agree with you wholeheartedly.
QUESTION: I think one of the hardest things for parents to accept is that their job is to help the child grow away from you. The more you feel for the child, the harder it is to do it. It can also be hard in the teaching profession to accept that same principle of weaning. But the very best we can do for people is to give them the strength to take responsibility for their lives and themselves, even if we sometimes donít want to.
Rev. FLAKE:I agree. My children are 14, 18, 19, 20 and 22, and I'm still trying to impress my wife that it's time to wean them.
Mr. FINN:Please join me in thanking Rev. Flake for being with us today and for bringing a fitting and inspirational end to an interesting day's conversation. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time in the legislative cycle, in Washington at least, where the issues facing the Congress and the administration in federal elementary secondary policy have been aired.
A number of different ideas have been trotted out. Competing views have been stated, sometimes forcefully. I think exchanges have been more than healthy -- they've actually been illuminating. And I hope that people are leaving a tiny bit illuminated, as well as amused, well-fed, and thanks to Rev. Flake, inspired. Class dismissed.