All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1990

The Right Kind of Social Activism

Professor Walter teaches in the Department of Philosophy, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Today’s gravest social problems—the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the dissolution of minority communities—feed upon each other: Blacks and Hispanics form a major part of an economic and educational underclass that, being isolated from mainstream society, doesn’t share mainstream values and goals. Drug use becomes an expression of alienated minorities, and drug abuse leads to violent crime.

Education, if it is no more than a publicity campaign, won’t cure the drug problem. Educational campaigns against alcohol abuse and smoking haven’t substantially reduced use of these substances in black and Hispanic communities, although they have affected behavior in middle class communities. The same findings turn up regarding health and nutrition education. A consistent correlation exists between educational and economic levels and responsiveness to behavioral propaganda. It can be predicted, therefore, that anti-drug propaganda will barely touch the minority underclass.

Unfortunately, the American public education system has failed blacks and Hispanics. The politicizing of public education, which is a natural outcome of Federal funding, is a primary cause of the system’s failure. Educational policy is molded to achieve politically inspired social goals, rather than to impart knowledge and skills. For example, bilingual education, black and Hispanic study programs, and simplified testing, which are implemented to appease minority activists, palliate the failures of minority students, but don’t prepare them to enter the work force.

Furthermore, such programs fortify the value differences of minority and white communities, thereby making racial harmony more difficult to achieve. Placing blacks, Hispanics, and whites in the same classroom will improve race relations only when students generally share common educational and career goals. Governmental affirmative action aims at physical integration, but it ignores value integration.

Project Choice

Now, however, a new program called Project Choice, started by Marion Laboratories (now Marlon Merrill Dow, Inc.) in Kansas City, shows great promise for raising the educational performance of minorities. Project Choice inculcates productive values, teaches intellectual and vocational skills to those who usually are bypassed by the educational system—and doesn’t expand the governmental bureaucracy. It can add skilled workers to the labor force while reducing drug abuse and crime.

Project Choice was begun in 1988 by Ewing M. Kauffman, founder of Marion Laboratories and principal owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. The program aims to improve inner-city communities by elevating the values of their youths and preparing young people to take their place in the business community—goals that have eluded public education thus far. Project Choice employs principles that Kauffman used to build Marion Laboratories into one of America’s most successful pharmaceutical companies. Kauffman’s life exemplifies the best American business tradition—a modern Horatio Alger story. He began his business career as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company in the1940s. Within two years, he was so successful that his commissions totaled more than the salary of the company’s president. In retaliation, his commissions were cut and his territory was reduced, so Kauffman left to start his own business. With $4,000, he set up shop in his basement. In the first year of business, his one-man operation netted $36,000 in gross sales and a $1,000 profit.

With Kauffman as chairman, Marion Laboratories grew to over 3,000 employees, with $752 million in gross sales and a net profit of $150 million in 1988. A year later, Dew Chemical Company bought Marion. Today, Kauffman is a billionaire.

In the autumn of his career, Kauffman, through Project Choice, seeks to revive personal initiative and hard work as educational values.

Project Choice, which is administrated by educator Thomas Rhone, targets inner-city youths, who are mostly black and Hispanic. Students who participate in the program are selected solely on the basis of financial need.

Contracts are drawn between the selected students and the Ewing M. Kauffman Foundation requiring students to attend classes regularly, participate in specially devised educational assistance programs, and to avoid alcohol, drugs, and parenthood. Students also must agree to submit to random drug testing. Parents co-sign the agreements.

The Foundation grants scholarships to colleges, universities, or technical schools to students who satisfy the prescribed conditions and graduate from high school. Tuition, fees, the cost of books and supplies, and reasonable room and board expenses are paid by the Foundation. Students are expected to attend schools in their resident states, but may choose schools outside the region with the Foundation’s approval.

Kauffman is eager to have students select technical schools, as well as colleges and universities. He hopes to develop data processors, secretaries, and other skilled workers to shore up a work force that hasn’t met the demands of an increasingly innovative technology. U.S. research hasn’t lagged behind its foreign competitors; rather, the inability to implement innovations has placed U.S. businesses at a disadvantage with foreign competitors. The program was launched in April 1988 with a group of eighth graders. This year, approximately 700 secondary school pupils in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, took part in the program. Students are encouraged to participate in tutorial programs developed at area colleges. These programs seek to improve mathematical and reading skills in a student body that, prior to entering the program, had high absentee records and low test scores. To facilitate the change in student attitudes, parents are encouraged to attend monthly meetings where student progress and problems are discussed.

Thus far, the student-participants’ progress has been very encouraging. In the first two random drug tests, students tested 98 percent drug free, which is far below what is usually found in inner-city schools. Surprisingly, students who weren’t tested complained about not being given a chance to prove they were fulfilling their contractual obligations. Project Choice students have the best attendance records at targeted schools. Students who previously failed course work are making significantly better grades. A strong sign that student attitudes are improving is that a number of eighth-grade contractors attended summer school to raise their grades so that they would qualify for entry into high school.

A promising feature of this program is its pragmatic character: As findings are obtained and scrutinized, practices are altered. For example, students initially were paid stipends for regularly attending classes. This practice was stopped, however, because it gave students the wrong message. Students should attend classes voluntarily because learning benefits them.

Project Choice is a long-range investment in business and society. It and similar programs should serve as models for inner-city communities.

1.   Let this reasoning be understood: Blacks and Hispanics are not likely to respond in significant numbers to anti-drug propaganda because they are part of an underclass, not because they are black or Hispanic. Poor and undereducated whites are equally unlikely to respond to anti-drug propaganda.

2.   The “I Have a Dream Program” instituted in New York City by Eugene M. Lang is similar to Project Choice. Of the 52 primary school students who initially participated in Lang’s program, 44 received high school diplomas in a school that has a 75 percent dropout rate by graduation time. Thirty of these students are now enrolled in college, including Swarthmore and Barnard.