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Education a non-issue in coming elections!

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Linville, North Carolina



With a major national election just a month away, the stakes continue to get higher.  Will the republicans regain control of congress, and will the President have his hands tied on major policy decisions for the next two years?  Every major spending issue, the cost of the war, the national debt and healthcare can trace a viable solution to educational reform.  A well-educated workforce is the key to pulling the country out of the present economic doldrums.  But in election contests nationwide, and particularly in my home state of Louisiana, improving public education is rarely, if ever, mentioned as a campaign issue.

Here in the Bayou State, the major race involves a Republican incumbent US Senator being challenged by a sitting Democratic congressman.  The contest has become a major mud fight with no policy proposals.  The idea of creative educational programs has not crossed the lips of either candidate, nor has it in any other federal race.   In a special election in the deepest of the deep southern states to fill a vacancy for the office of Lt. Governor, a press forum was held this week where all major candidates attended.  A little lip service was paid to increasing state funds to LSU, the flagship university — but nary a word was spoken about reform at the elementary level, where the whole process begins.

Congress jumped into the economic fray and fixed the banks and Wall Street, but left creative ideas to upgrade public education on the sidelines.  As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote recently, “We need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system.  Our educational failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness.”

In every conference held, and every study conducted that reviews how to make the country more productive and competitive, emphasis on math and science tops the list.  In national surveys, Louisiana math and science scores rank at the bottom.  The state has lost a number of startup companies to other cities like Dallas and Atlanta because of the lack of potential employees with math and science skills.

Yet, math and science achievements are far from being buzzwords of the state’s educational and political leaders.  Recent state economic grants of several hundred million dollars went to a sweet potato processing plant and a poultry plant that hires chicken pluckers. Now if we could just give state economic incentives for Louisiana farmers to grow “poke salad,” a traveler could buy a complete meal at a stand on the side of the road.

Golfer Phil Mickelson understands the importance of math and science, and is doing something about the nation’s lack luster teaching effort.  He has formed the Mickelson Exxon Mobil teachers Academy, a summer camp for third and fourth grade teachers to improve their teaching skills in math and science.  And he points out that he uses math and science in his golfing career.  “It helps me know what I need to focus on,” says Phil.  “On putting, for example, at three feet, the success rate is about 99%.  At four feet it drops off to 88%, and at five feet to 75%, and so on.”Â  Probability of success saves him exponential stokes on his game. A simplified example, but Michelson takes the effort to heart. He is convinced that waiting until high school for heavy concentration in math and science is way too late.

A bright spot of logic in Louisiana comes from Shreveport cardiologist, Dr. Philip Rozeman.  He has been a guest on my radio show, and he thinks, with good reason, that educators and politicians spend far too much time on adult issues, like who runs the school boards, teachers unions, and how charters schools are licensed.  “Often, adult issues dominate the debate and children’s issues are pushed to the side.”

I’m spending the next week in rural Western North Carolina where certain schools have pushed “children’s issues” to the front burner.  Close by to my residence is Shanequa High School in Gaston, N.C., where most of the students are black, and many are from low-income families.  The school hours go from 7:30 am until 5:00 pm, with two hours of mandatory homework, along with Saturday morning classes every other Saturday, and three weeks of summer school.   There are no teachers unions here and teachers are attracted with high pay, and the freedom to be creative in raising the level of student interest.  The results?  All 48 graduating seniors were accepted to at least two colleges and all will be attending one next year.

In my home state of Louisiana, far from expanding the school day, some districts have gone to a four-day school week.  When the New Orleans saints opened their season on a Thursday night a few weeks ago, schools in the New Orleans area shut down at noon.  Got to get ready for the game, right?

In a number of progressive school districts around the country, computers track each student’s performance.  If a kid gets a D or F on a test, the school’s computer generates an email to the parent.  High tech strategies include seeing that every elementary student has a computer.  India is now offering a $35 touch screen tablet computer, and many businesses are helping to fund such programs in local schools’ systems when there are innovative school leaders who set up such a program.

My family adopted several local children’s homes here in the Baton Rouge beginning last year. In talking to the kids, they expressed their frustration when they left school and came back to the group home where computers were not available. One thirteen year old told me:  “We can’t get help for our homework and projects over the Internet like the rest of the kids have at their home.”Â  We supplied six computers along with Wi Fi accessibility.  Immediately, the student interest in studying improved and grades went up.

One Friday night, I dropped by the home to check on the kids who ranged in age from 11 to 14.  One 13 year old was over in the corner reading. This was his fifth group home in six years with no family to support him. “What are you reading?” I asked.  He held up the book for me to see.  It was Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I thought to myself, how many privileged kids with family support are home on a Friday night reading Shakespeare?  If this kid doesn’t make it, we have only ourselves to blame for not giving him the tools and support he needs to be a productive citizen.

In a state like Louisiana, where abundant natural resources have been a disincentive to finding a good paying job, the basic qualifying education rate has been dismal for years.  But with mineral production slowing down and under assault because of the recent Gulf oil spill, this should be a wakeup call. A well-educated work force will attract more advanced industries with high tech designs.  The path to a future of prosperity in all states, but particularly in Louisiana, is knowledge.  Someone needs to ring that bell.


“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.”Â Â Â   Lee Iacocca

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all is past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com. The show is televised at http://www.justin.tv/jimbrownusa.

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