Editorial: The great divide

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By The Times-Ledger

There is no issue of greater importance in southeast Queens than education. Public safety, housing and jobs still hold a prominent place in the political dialogue, but Queens is a place for families and the No. 1 issue for these families is education.

It is at least interesting, if not astounding, that the two most influential voices in New York's Africa-American community – the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Floyd Flake – have landed on opposite sides in the latest battle over public education. Last week, Rev. Sharpton publicly denounced a proposal that would allow the for-profit Edison Schools to take over five failing schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Both preachers have a great deal at stake here. Rev. Sharpton locked arms with ACORN, a community-based organization that is prone to take extremist positions. ACORN is suing to stop the takeover, arguing that Edison Schools did properly notify the parents of the children attending the schools in Question.

Sharpton was joined by Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers), U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) who district includes part of western Queens, several City Council members and representatives from the local chapter of the NAACP. Rev. Flake had asked Rev. Sharpton to lend his support to the takeover. Sharpton had other plans.

We confess it is hard for us not to be suspicious of Sharpton’s motives. Some of Sharpton’s best friends may be card-carrying members of the UFT, but you won't find Mr. and Mrs. Sharpton sending their daughters to a public school. No way. Sharpton has bigger fish to fry. It is not likely that Sharpton will run for mayor, but he is in the position this year to be a kingmaker. His endorsement will be critical in winning the Democratic mayoral primary. By opposing Edison, Sharpton has solidified his standing with the UFT and other unions.

On the other hand, Rev. Flake is hardly neutral. The Queens pastor and former congressman is president of Edison Charter Schools. In a letter to Sharpton, Flake said Edison would waive a $500,000 fee it would receive from the Board of Education if the takeover were approved. Edison is eager for the opportunity to demonstrate that its system works.

Whose word should parents trust? On the one hand, there is the omnipresent civil rights activist who thinks public schools are just fine for your children but not good enough for his own. A man who in the last 20 years has not laid one brick in the borough of Queens. On the other hand, there is Rev. Flake who has built the most successful private school in southeast Queens and is not afraid to say that the city must look for alternatives to traditional public education.

Sharpton has a gift for preaching and politics. He is an iconoclast more likely to tear a building down than to build one.

Flake is a builder. He and his church – now a gleaming cathedral – have built affordable private homes, senior citizen housing and an outstanding school.

Why should the people of Queens care what happens to failing schools in other boroughs? Should Edison get control of these schools and succeed in turning them around, a pattern will beset that will send shock waves through the public school system. It occurs to us that in southeast Queens, parents sacrifice a great deal to be able to send their children to private schools such as the school run by Rev. Flake and his church. This speaks volumes about the dissatisfaction with the state of our public schools. Edison may not be the best answer, but at least it’s worth trying.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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