Graduating to a system that works

2602-1As the Christmas season gets into full swing, and we are reminded of the holiday clichés expounding the virtues of peace on earth and goodwill to men, it seems that some in our state haven’t gotten the message. Inequity and violence are as ubiquitous in New Orleans, and to a lesser degree in Baton Rouge, as the Mississippi River.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans has the second widest income gap between the rich and the poor; Baton Rouge is also in the top 10 on the list. It’s not that either city has a large number of uber-wealthy residents— quite the opposite; we have large numbers of poor people whose families have been poor for generations. They cannot see or have not found a path out of poverty.

Once again, Louisiana is towards the top of the lists on which no one wants his state to be found. New Orleans continues to make national news with its high rates of murders and other violent crimes, and while improving, the school system is still not up to par. And there it is. Education: that’s the common thread tying all of this together.

This state has, for decades, shrugged its shoulders and acted as though nothing can be done to teach our children or prepare them to compete in a modern economy. Politicians often cry poor and point to budgetary shortfalls to explain why we can’t fix the broken system. Elected officials could certainly address the problem, at least in part, if they would be willing to sacrifice some sacred cows.

For a state that lags behind so many others in terms of education, Louisiana clings to a disproportionately large number of four-year universities—14 public four-year colleges and universities for a state of roughly 4 million people. If one would dare to suggest that any of these should be eliminated or merged with another campus, as was the case with UNO and SUNO, the backlash would make the prospect untenable for most. The redundancies in our university system are widespread and costly. Consolidation offers an opportunity for savings and an opportunity to revisit the current educational paradigm.

Our system of higher education is stuck in the Huey Long era. The number of colleges is tantamount to the Kingfish’s populist rhetoric—instead of “every man a king,” we have a system that seems to demand “in every community, a college.” Education is never a bad thing, but the system is not preparing a vast number of students for jobs that exist here, and the lack of technical training is often cited as the reason major companies don’t see Louisiana as a viable location.

We have an economy that has more in common with nations to our south, than with states to our north. Our major drivers are tourism and either extracting or refining our natural resources. None of those is necessarily bad, but the lack of diversity or opportunity in that economic model leads to the kind of inequity that is so commonplace here.

It’s time to consolidate campuses and to revamp the curriculums of these institutions where we teach and train the future workforce in our state. Is there a place for a standard liberal arts education? Of course there is. Is it the only path upon which we should send young people? Absolutely not. Not every student is well-suited for, or even interested in, that kind of education. We must evaluate where the vacuums exist in the workforce and offer people the opportunity to get the training to fill those spots.

As the redundancies in Louisiana’s public colleges and universities are eliminated, some of the money that is saved can be funneled back into the high schools; the process can begin there. For whatever reason, career training was largely eliminated from public education, the insinuation being if you prepared students for a career as an electrician, you were telling them they weren’t smart enough to go to college. Anyone who’s built a house can tell you that electricians, plumbers, and carpenters have good jobs that pay well. Saying there’s “nothing wrong” with pursuing any of those trades would be an insult to those who do those jobs every day.

Jobs that focus on building something, making something, or fixing something are not just honorable careers, but potentially lucrative ones as well. We should be offering kids diverse opportunities, beginning in high school, to become trained as chefs and foremen.

A traditional college path is not for everyone, and if we can help high school students realize there are other options out there, and help them find the path that works for them, we will make progress toward closing that income gap. In doing so, the added tax revenue would put more money into state coffers, allowing us to add more relevant training programs, which in turn would help our residents get better jobs—a wonderful cycle of advancement. Perhaps that’s just a Christmas wish.

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