WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, met with United Press International editors and reporters on Tuesday for an exclusive interview. Price fielded questions on topics ranging from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's record to the challenges facing urban educational reform. Here is a transcript of that interview.
In eight years as president of the Urban League, Price has enlarged the organization's endowment and launched a variety of campaigns to promote urban educational achievement.
UPI: How would you address the fact that 93 percent of the black vote in the United States goes to one party? Does it pose any problems for the black community in America?
Price: I do think there ought to be a more robust contest for our vote, which means that there need to be contestants for the vote. I don't think that the Republican Party has made much of an effort over the last several decades to appeal to the African American community. It has appeared to stand for policies that are antithetical to the prevailing view of what is in the interest of the African American community.
At a local level, you see surges here and there. I think also at the local level you see a lot of pragmatic campaigns where party labels are barely advertised. At the national level, there is a need for a more robust contest, but hostility to affirmative action -- which has been one of the litmus tests -- is not going to win a lot of friends in the African American community. (Republican) Positions on welfare reform in the past are not going to win a lot of friends in the African American community.
So, I think that the president has made some effort in this area. The new home ownership initiative is an effort in this area. I do think he has a visceral interest in raising the achievement levels and literacy levels of children of color. I don't think that is a superficial interest. I think it is deep-seeded. And if he can move that ball downfield I think there will be a more robust contest for our vote.
But the Republican Party has not made much of an effort. And certainly, with only one African-American congressman -- and with J.C. Watts retiring -- there has not been much of a leadership presence to make the pitch either.
UPI: What about school vouchers? It seems like an issue that has gained some support in the African American community and yet we seem to see little support from representative institutions.
Price: Well, there has not yet been a national election where that was an issue. That may materialize this year if the parties decide to make it an issue. It may well be an issue in the 2004 election.
Our own views on vouchers are a little complex. I think the interest in school vouchers reflects a very healthy impatience with the caliber of public schools in many cities. I understand that and it is certainly unreasonable to ask any parent to wait while school reform catches up with their children's needs.
From our perspective, the danger lies down the road. It is almost inevitable that in American politics there will be a push to widen access to this economic benefit. Once that happens, the costs to the public sector will be gargantuan. If you look at vouchers, the first version is a tuition tax credit which can be used for K-12 expenses and that has bubbled up as well. One is a direct appropriation, the other is a tax expenditure.
If you read Education Week just after the Supreme Court decision, headmasters of religious schools were lusting after vouchers, not because they had any desire to take in inner city kids, but because they wanted to parents of the kids already enrolled in those schools to get the economic benefit.
I can see ultra-conservatives someday arguing that vouchers which benefit minority children are tantamount to racial preferences. I can see ultra-conservatives arguing that vouchers that benefit low-income kids perpetuate class warfare. I can see home schoolers arguing that they ought to get their tax dollars back in the form of vouchers because they are doing the job.
So the prospect of the spread of vouchers out beyond low-income kids in struggling schools is deeply troubling. The prospect of widening the availability could have a devastating impact on public funding of public schools.
In my view also, vouchers establish the illusion of choice but not the reality of choice. Established private schools do not want large numbers of inner city kids -- the Country Day Schools, the Sidwell Friends -- they are not looking for a lot of inner city kids. Maybe a few, just to make a statement, but not to relieve the problem in the public schools.
Catholic schools also have limited capacity. So what is happening is that kids are going to newly created schools which may or may not be founded by people who know what they are doing. In effect, they are unregulated charter schools. If we are going to create new schools they ought to be publicly funded schools that are publicly accountable.
I understand the impulse for vouchers and I understand parents' impatience. But in the final analysis we have got to make the schools that 90 percent of our children attend, a lot better.
UPI: What would you do to accomplish that?
Price: There is quite a lot of knowledge about how to make public schools function a lot better than they do now.
Just this month the former Superintendent of Schools in Mount Vernon, N.Y., joined us as a distinguished fellow in urban education reform. His name is Ronald Ross.
When Mr. Ross took over in Mount Vernon, took over in a town just outside of New York City -- a town where the demographics are virtually indistinguishable from the Bronx in many respects -- 35 percent of the kids were passing the New York state reading exam. This year, 79 percent passed. Close to 80 percent passed the New York State exam in math.
He engineered a reform effort that focused on reading. He brought in reading specialists in the classroom. They challenged kids to read 50 books a year. There is a whole agenda.
He and folks like the Education Trust with their survey called "Dispelling the Myth" have shown that there are plenty of schools that function just fine. ... Parents need to do a lot more about what they are doing.
If I might pause for a plug, I have a book coming out in August called "Achievement Matters" which is written for parents and care-givers, on how to help your kids become good readers, high achievers, and enthusiastic learners.
We drew on the experiences from our achievement campaign. We talked to lots of young people in our National Achievers' Society who got B averages or better. We talked to them about how they did it, how they overcame the pressures they felt from their peers. We talked to their parents. We looked at a lot of research ... and folded in those lessons and my own experience as a parent and a mentor and I'm proud to say as a retired kid.
I talked about my testing experience as a caution for parents. If you think your kid has more juice than those test results reflect, don't accept that judgment. ...
This book is coming out on Aug. 27.
I believe very strongly that we have to awaken parents to the obligations and opportunities that they have to pull on the oars and provide the support at home and keep an eye on what the schools are doing, to apply pressure to the schools. And I think that we have, we've been preaching the gospel of achievement for the last five years under our achievement campaign, we're getting parents stirred up and aware. I think that's what stoking the interest in vouchers and I have no quarrel with the parents, I want the best for my child and I'm gonna get it wherever I can find it, that's if I'm staring at a parent. I understand that, I've been there, parents have been there.
At a cosmic policy level, we're doing everything we can to pressure the public schools to improve, because that's where most of the kids are and that's where most of the answers must be found for our kids.
UPI: You're talking about what you can do within the schools, but as a reporter I found that it was in the school board and the taxing authority that the established white middle class grows less and less interested in funding public schools. ... How do you get control of the resources if the primary user of the public schools is ... ?
Price: I think we have to draw a distinction for K-12 education that was successfully drawn in youth development. And that is, that whether you have children in the schools aor not you have a direct stake because you are paying one way or another. When I first got to the League in 1994, the whole area of youth development, what happens in kids' lives after school, was kind of an inchoate field. I was deeply interested, and a lot of true believers were, but we weren't able to move the policy agenda very aggressively because all of the evidence we could round up in the mid-1990s was evidence about the benefits for kids. Then a few studies surfaced which showed that the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are prime time for teen crime and sexual behavior, etc. and you were able to say to the broader society, look if this is prime time for crime and sex, you are going to pay. You're going to pay for welfare, for the juvenile justice system, etc., so better to invest in inventive after-school programs.
I think we need to draw the same distinction when we are looking at the low education levels of inmates. The correlations are stunning. I can't source this, but I've been told on a couple of occasions in passing conversations that there are at least two states in the South that develop their projections for the number of prison cells they need on the proportion of kids that pass the reading test in elementary school. If we can successfully draw that correlation then perhaps as states begin to pull back some of the funding from the criminal justice system and the needless incarceration of many non-violent offenders, it can be rerouted into public education. It's going to be a battle, but I do think that if the schools start to perform better, everyone will feel a higher level of confidence in them and a higher comfort level about paying the tab, because the economy benefits and we save on the other end. But I think to do that, more school systems are going to have to show steeper levels of progress than they are showing now.
UPI: I also wanted to ask about public choice. Do you feel that a choice of public schools across jurisdictional lines is an important part of school reform?
Price: I think it is, but the problem is there aren't a lot of jurisdictions outside of where kids in need attend that are happy to receive the children. I think you can have reasonably robust choice within the public school system. I think there ought to be a number of different kinds of public schools available to kids, especially in this day and age, that in a lot of the cities where they have these big old warehouse schools with several thousand students, that's not going to work very well for a lot of kids who are restive and disinterested. I think that a lot of kids ought to be in smaller schools; they can be charter schools, or ... we've got a lot of so-called New Vision schools in New York City that were started when Joe Fernandez was chancellor. He decided basically not to build several more big high schools and instead spawned the creation of a lot of small schools, and opened it up so that any institution of consequence and credibility who wanted to start a high school could get it ... it was a precursor to the charter schools. So yes, I think that a lot of different kinds of publicly financed, publicly accountable schools ought to be created for youngsters.
The Urban League started the street academies. Those were charter schools a generation ago for kids who weren't functioning in traditional schools. If BCC High School, Fairfax High School had to take a bunch of kids from inner city Washington, that would be a good thing ... but I don't know that that is going to happen. We've already seen the demise of a lot of busing in a lot of jurisdictions; I don't expect to see a lot of voluntary cross-jurisdictional activity. If you've got a terrific school in the city, you're probably going to see some suburban kids who want to come to those schools, but I don't think you are going to see a lot of suburban school kids who want to go to traditional city schools.
UPI: A lot of urban problems, such as crime and drugs, are shifting to suburbs. Has that helped or hindered a lot of the reform efforts, educational or otherwise, that you are working on?
Price: It's interesting ... many suburban communities have a lot of the same issues as a lot of the urban areas. There are people from the inner city coming in, though a lot is the in-migration from outside the U.S. who are coming in with lower education levels and limited English skills. ...
I live in outside of New York City and the change in Westchester county, in terms of the influx of the Latino population, is utterly amazing. These are folks who are eager to work and participate in the U.S. economy but their children don't bring high levels of literacy and it's a huge challenge for the schools. So there's some movement from the cities and some movement from overseas which is greatly complicating matters.
Also, cities are so varied. My daughter and son-in-law live in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn. I was waiting by the car and I think I saw 10 or 15 nationalities walk by in 10 minutes. It was dazzling. Maybe there wasn't an Australian but I think every other continent was clearly represented. It was stunning. I don't know how the public schools there work their way through that.
We're asking the schools to do a lot. They're struggling to adapt to that and the second thing they are struggling to adapt to is the new demand, relatively new, that they really are expected to educate all children well. I came through the Washington, D.C., schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s. You never read anything about what the drop-out rate was, you never read anything about what proportion of kids passed the reading exams. ... The schools basically taught the kids who sat in the first couple of rows and they told the rest of the kids be quiet, don't act out, and if you can hang until you're 16 you can drop out and join the army, go to work in a factory someplace, or go back where your folks came from on the farm. If you acted out, they were going to send you to reform school. You know where reform school was in Washington? You know where Fort Lincoln is? That was reform school. It might as well have been in Mississippi as far as the terror that invoked.
The expectation then was that the economy only needed a finite number of well-educated managers and then it needed a lot of factory workers and farm workers and privates in the army. So the schools functioned with that assumption. Today the economy needs a vast number of more highly-trained people, and the going assumption in schools is to educate all children well. They are struggling with that transition, they can't get used to that, yet. And we as a society haven't yet made the investment in the caliber of a teacher corps that can get that done. The schools should be held to that standard, its only just, but they're adjusting to what that means.
UPI: You vehemently opposed the confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general. He's been in office now for a year and a half. Would you be willing to give him a rating now, in general or on the individual issues you raised before he was confirmed?
Price: The role of the attorney general and the department around police issues has been more constructive then I think I would have expected. I think they've played a constructive role in Cincinnati and in a number of other communities that have problems. I don't think they have been terribly proactive from a systemic point of view. There had been some progress made under President Clinton after we and others leaned on the president and attorney general Janet Reno very hard. We were in a leadership role in trying to smoke them out on this issue, because they really didn't want to deal with the issues of police brutality and racial profiling, but once we got them in focus the attorney general had started some very constructive dialogues with leaders from the law enforcement community, the police -- they were working towards a set of best practice guidelines, etc. Unfortunately, I think a lot of that energy dissipated during the wind down of the Clinton administration in a number of these local situations.
A lot of the recommendations for judges that have emanated from the justice department have been very problematic, we've been in a number of those scrapes. I want the president and the attorney general and the CIA and the army and all the forces to be very successful in hunting down al Qaida and whoever else means us harm. I do find the civil liberties implications of a lot of the things that they are proposing truly frightening, not fully justified, and they need to be monitored like a hawk.
UPI: In particular, which proposals?
Price: The notions floated of having telephone workers and meter readers ... yeah, that's the way it worked in Hungary and East Germany. We can't go back there. It's a horrific idea. You know, who knows where that stuff stops once it starts. So you know, I think that Sensenbrenner and Connors and Leahy just have to stay right on the administration on that issue and make them justify every step.
And I salute that judge who is saying who are these people who have been detained, why are they being detained, what's the case, etc. So I think we've got to, if we are going to dilute civil liberties in any way there's got to be a hell of a justification, the reasons have to be transparent and its got to be monitored very, very closely. The zeal with which some of those measures have been pursued and sprung on the country I find profoundly troubling. And interestingly, it has been profoundly troubling across all ideological lines.
I really think it's a mixed grade; C+ to B on a number of police issues, D on a number of the recommended judicial appointments -- that's a matter of ideology -- I think the appointment of Larry Thompson is good, he's a rock-solid guy. And the civil liberties issue is very, very troubling.
UPI: How about the voting rights issues in Florida?
Price: I haven't seen the energy yet from the administration, either from the president or the justice department, to clean all that up. I think the disposition has been to sort of leave that to the states and see what comes out of Congress. But I think that the administration could have been and should have been much more aggressive in pressing for a very swift resolution of those issues and just putting that behind us. You know, we don't need a system that functions like that -- let's just get modern. Or let's go way, way back to those machines we have in New York that count well, and don't break -- so there's no ambiguity about how you cast you vote.
I don't understand where there's any moment in the calendar to think about gun control. Of all the issues we face in society, why there's even time to press on that front, it blows my mind. I think there's a set of issues they're trying to tick off -- yes we've dealt with this, we've dealt with this -- but I think there's some intervening factors that I think have made some issues recede in importance and others climb to the top. I feel for everyone in the administration, because I am struck to this day with how few people have been arrested that have been charged with anything connected with 9/11. I feel for how little we seem to know about how wide the net was in this country and who might have been involved. As a citizen I feel that maybe we're not as much in the dark as it appears, but it still feels like we're still in dark about who knew what, what we know about who on the ground in this country is up to what ... I still feel real nervous about some of our borders, particularly up in Canada. I fly a lot; I don't like to read about people slipping decoy guns through--that's not funny. I don't know why it's so hard to solve that problem. I don't mind taking off my shoes ... it's OK with me.
So I think there needs to be even a sharper focus, more transparency, and as we start to pursue these folks, I think we have to be very mindful of how our constitutional system works, because that's what was under attack, not just the human victims.
UPI: I think if John Ashcroft were here, he'd say, there's been no second attack against America, so we must be doing something right. ...
Price: I'm greatly relieved, but I wouldn't say anyone in this room is less jittery that there might be one, and we may never get to the bottom of the barrel. We may never get there.
It would be comforting to see a parade of detainees who were formally charged and brought to justice. But that may be the nature of what we're dealing with. It may have also been a very small operation we're dealing with over here, we don't know.
UPI: If I could connect that back to the discussion of racial profiling, one of the main issues seems to be on the whole business of random searches at airports, a discussion that seems to be heavily influenced by the political debate over racial profiling that occurs in places like New Jersey. Do you think that the racial profiling debate has harmed the government's ability to do things like racial profiling at airports?
Price: First, let me say that I've never had a conversation with a law enforcement professional who thought racial profiling was effective policing. It's kind of a needle in a haystack approach to detection. I've been most influenced by Ray Kelly, now the NYPD chief of police, who said that when he was running the Customs Service that when they switched from generalized, random searches to searches that were more informed by patterns of behavior that the hit rate went way up. Second point I'd make is that there are Muslim extremists who are Caucasian in Kazakhstan, there are Muslim extremists who are Filipino, Indonesian, Sudanese. Muslim extremists come in all complexions and focusing only on ... even if you look at a lot of folks from the Middle East, maybe some are self-evident, but I've seen a stunning variety of people from what I see on television. So I worry that we'll work on only one stereotype and could well miss others who mean to do us harm. I don't think it's terribly comforting to say we are going to focus only on folks who look Arab.
UPI: Are the domestic political considerations, not doing anything that anyone could arguably call racial profiling, affecting the utility of searches, or is it causing people at airports to be searched who obviously need not be, such as Vice President Al Gore?
Price: It's probably a factor in these early stages in the response, but as we beef up our intelligence responses, I think there's more information that can be gathered there. For example, when people are buying tickets, if they are paying cash, that's germane, I would think. So I think we have to develop more sophisticated intelligence information on people who have developed odd travel patterns that call our attention.
There are people who are deranged of all races. Islamic extremists come in all complexions. I suspect we will evolve towards a screening modality. ... Everyone is searched to some degree ... we will probably get a bit more sophisticated about that.
UPI: There has been a lot of concern expressed that these potential infringments of civil liberties will be abused, and a counter argument that says we are past that, that we can manage these restrictions properly. ...
Price: I don't think you are ever past being vigilant about civil liberties. There have been a variety of circumstances that have bubbled up in the history of the country that have called for wire-taps and other activities, but that's all the more reason why Congress needs to remain vigilant of the need to bring administration officials up to Capitol Hill to testify; they need to subpoena records to find out how these measure are used; they need to smack the administration down if anyone ventures outside the accepted zone of practice in this instance, namely hunting down terrorists. There has to be very vigilant congressional oversight, and ongoing oversight, until we feel that. ... I am relieved that this has caused such bi-partisan angst. It's fascinating to see Bill Safire and the ACLU on the same side in this issue, that's very healthy. And remember, the administration has backed off on some of the stuff it suggested rather blithely at the beginning, because the response came from all these sources.
So I think that there's an understanding that we have to use some new tools and become much more sophisticated on the infiltration front, on the tracking, monitoring, wiretapping fronts, etc., but it's got to be contained, we've got to make sure that it doesn't make sure that it doesn't spill over to other areas of life. My answers feel facile. I'm not an intelligence expert, I don't know what they are finding, but I have seen the exercise of these policies go amok, and I have been the victim of it myself, and of course we are all familiar with the most egregious form of racial profiling in World War II with the Japanese.
UPI: We are beginning to see increasing efforts to link the terrorism and drug trafficking. Does that concern you?
Price: Yes, it concerns me greatly. We don't have much of an anti-drug thrust in this country. I used to be a vice-president of the Rockefeller foundation, and back in the late 80's and early 90's the board asked me to look at what me might do. ... It was the most exasperating exercise, because you have a supply side and a demand side, and the supply side was virtually out of control, a lot of our dear friends are suppliers, trying to be really aggressive with them would destabilize their governments, blah, blah, blah. And we've got very porous borders and vast borders. And look at the technology they have, they can melt down cocaine and use it to starch shirts and bring it in, so I think its very hard to staunch the supply, and we're not serious about staunching the demand. All we do is incarcerate the shmucks, the street people, there's very little done about users who are criminals. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if the justice department cracked down on users, not just the inner city users, but the upper and middle class users, what that would do to the market. But we don't do that. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if we cracked down on the cash flows but we don't do that. ... The most sophisticated person I've ever talked to about that was a woman named Matya Falco, who studied this every which way you can. She once talked to Treasury about what they and what other departments could do if they wanted to make the cash flow difficult for the kingpins in the industry, and they came up with five or ten things that could be done and they couldn't do any of them. So we are not terribly serious about dealing with the demand side of the equation.
You know, we can do all we want on the influx of drugs from overseas, but with all of the synthetic drugs that can be created, you know, if you push the bubble over here we surge in synthetic drugs that don't involve trafficking, they just involve a little hardware in the kitchen. It's one of the most exasperating problems we have, and I would hate to see the kind of techniques that are being developed in the war on terrorism to be used for drugs, because I think we would only be dabbling still.
We're not attacking one of the major sources of the problem, which is the demand, the consumer demand. And in particular, the most highly visible sources of the problem, Hollywood, the advertising community, and Wall Street. Now if we really started cracking down on that, and treated those folks like johns. ... All we see is Robert Downey. We know there's more to what's going on down there with cocaine than that. It would be fascinating.
UPI: Can you address the issue of welfare reform?
Price: We were very disturbed back in 1996 by the prospect that the end of welfare benefits after the time limits exposed people to great risk if the economy went south. Welfare recipients are now caught in the perfect economic storm. Time limits are kicking in, employment is very sluggish- its up to around 11 percent in the black community. States are too broke to continue their unemployment benefits, and as Doug Besherov of AEI has written in the Washington Post, welfare rolls are climbing. So we have said that states should be given the latitude to relax the time limits if their unemployment rates are above a certain threshold. I'm not saying permanent repeal, but let them relax it, don't push so many people off into a labor market like this that's not creating many jobs. If the labor market tightens up again, OK, resume the pressure.
Secondly, we haven't really adequately addressed the issue of child care and health care, the fundamental supports that parents need to hold on to jobs, because if you go out and get a job and don't have those in place, the lack of those is going to be highly disruptive to your ability to work.
Thirdly, our Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality did an analysis of college going rates among welfare recipients and we detected something very troubling, and that is there has been a 20 percent dip in welfare recipients going to college as there had been under the old system. That's because they are under so much pressure to go straight into the labor market. The cost of that is that inability to go to college and have that count as meeting work requirements undercuts their ability to get the skills they need to get good jobs, and that strikes us as a step backwards. So we believe that when TANIF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) comes up for renewal that folks who are earnestly pursuing college degrees ought to be allowed to do that, and then cycle off. Because the recent Census bureau study just confirms everything that we already know, that the more education you have, the greater the lifetime earnings, and the less likelihood that you will ever be unemployed.