Want to save Louisiana schools? Then let’s do something about poverty

By Robert Mann

If there is anything that threatens Louisiana’s future more than the pitiful state of its education system, it’s our unwillingness to talk honestly about what ails our schools and their students. Put another way, little will change until we acknowledge and address the deep, systemic poverty that plagues Louisiana and prevents so many young people from realizing their potential.

Louisiana is in denial about its many problems — and nothing exemplifies that better than our repeated failures in education.

Over the past 30 years, we have tried almost every education “reform” any innovative reformer cooked up. We’ve left few policy ideas on the table.

In 1986, the state approved high-stakes tests to determine whether students should advance to the fifth and ninth grades. Since 1999, the state has issued report cards for schools and identified so-called failing schools. We embraced the 2001 national No Child Left Behind Act that required even more student testing and accountability.

We have enacted all kinds of teacher-quality initiatives. When Bobby Jindal was governor that culminated in legislation to eliminate teacher tenure and make it easier to fire those whose students were underperforming.

In the beginning, at least, Louisiana embraced the Common Core State Standards, an array of college- and career-ready benchmarks for K-12 students. We’ve tried charter schools and private-school vouchers.

After trying all this and much more, where do we stand?

Louisiana schools are still among the nation’s worst. We remain last among states in Wallet Hub’s comprehensive annual ranking of education systems. U.S. News rates Louisiana’s schools as the seventh-worst in the country.

And what do the bright minds who run the state’s school system suggest we do about this? Why, they counsel even more “reforms” and doubling down on what we’re already doing.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Louisiana’s people can handle the truth about their state and its future

By Robert Mann

“How dare you!” a reader scolded me by email after reading my previous column, in which I argue “Louisiana is sick and dying.” She added: “If you have such disdain for this state and this city then get the hell out.”

In September 2016, when I wrote the first draft of what became an elegy for Louisiana, I shelved it. I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed with many such angry responses. I wasn’t certain it was wise to brand an entire state hopeless. Moreover, I wasn’t sure I believed it, having written two years earlier that Louisiana still had hope and that our young people should consider staying to fight for its future.

What prompted me to publish my grim thoughts was reading a remarkable book published last year, “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s examination of Louisiana politics and culture through the prism of corrupt and neglectful environmental policies is bracing, depressing and deadly accurate.

If you think my conclusion is grim, you must read Hochschild’s account, not only for its searing indictment of our decades of environmental degradation but also to appreciate the unwillingness (or inability) of so many to recognize and punish the culprits.

Ostensibly, Hochschild wants readers to understand the Trump-loving Tea Party members adrift in a sea of social change and economic disruption. In doing so, she also reinforces my point: Our state is deathly ill, and there is little inclination to do something about it.I was prepared for a fusillade of ferocious responses to my column, very much like the one above. So I was surprised by how many not only agreed with my diagnosis but said they have had similar conversation with friends and families.

“You put into words what I’ve been feeling for a while,” someone told me on Facebook. A Louisiana native, now living in Texas, wrote, “I have often thought of returning and staying because I love it and will always consider it home, but unsure I want to fight a seemingly losing battle.”

By email, a New Orleanian wrote, “As I get older (I’m almost 67), I realize that nothing, NOTHING, is going to change in this place, and it’s profoundly sad.” A state official called to say he agreed with my analysis about our unwillingness to embrace progress and reform. “We just don’t have it in us,” he concluded.

At church last Sunday, a friend greeted me at the door. Her eyes welled up. She and her husband had discussed the same concerns my column addressed, she told me. Their daughter has begun her second year of college in a distant state and won’t return. That’s because the young woman lives in a progressive, diverse and well-functioning community, the likes of which she never experienced here.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Let’s face facts: Louisiana is sick and dying

By Robert Mann

Two questions have dogged me lately: If I could go back 18 years, would I raise my children in Louisiana? Would I still view this as a place that would nurture and educate them, offer opportunities for personal and financial growth and help my wife and I imbue in them the values important to us?

When my son and daughter were born, I believed the answer was yes. I had hope. Even three years ago, I still had faith in Louisiana, as I wrotein a column to young people who considered abandoning the state: “Stay here, find like-minded people, organize them, expand your influence, demand change, but don’t give up on this amazing, beautiful place. Its good people — flawed as we might be — are worth your efforts.”

When I wrote that, I believed Louisiana had brighter days. I hoped there was a small flame of desire to recreate something great here. I thought Louisiana’s people wanted to redeem their state.

I was wrong.

Today, I ask only, “Is this as good as it will ever be?” The answer, I believe, is yes. It’s not getting better and could get much worse.

For all its rich and diverse culture and abundant natural resources, Louisiana is the sick man of the United States. We’re an economic basket case and a toxic waste pit of environmental neglect and misconduct.

We are the state most adept at missing opportunities and abusing and wasting our abundant natural resources.

Louisiana is my home in every way and, at 59, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. And yet it’s time to admit this is a place with no visible promise and little hope. To pretend otherwise is to engage in delusional thinking. We must face facts.

I’m not saying everyone should give up and leave. I’m staying and fighting for our future. There is much work to do, and I believe I can make a difference. I suspect most of you feel the same. But if we’re staying, we must be honest about Louisiana’s deplorable condition and bleak future.

Blame our leaders, if you like. But the problem is us. On average, we aspire to mediocrity; we are happy with good enough. We live in a land of plenty but view the world from an attitude of scarcity.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Posted in Louisiana higher education, Louisiana Politics, Politics, poverty | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Hurricane Harvey reminds us (including Ted Cruz) we are all in the same boat

Why is it we often need a flood, earthquake or other natural disaster to remind us of our common humanity? What is it about the cataclysmic flooding in Houston that prompts us to remember we are all in the same boat?I’ve always thought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Most people know and embrace Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” After his unforgettable story of indifference and compassion, Jesus asks, “Which one was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The answer: “The one who had mercy on him.”

This foundational principle should be easy for people of all faiths to remember, given that their belief systems are built upon it. In times of crisis, most act upon these teachings. Hearts, doors and wallets open wide, draw in hurt and battered souls and pour out love in the form of cold drinks, hot food and warm beds.

That’s why it’s so painful to watch Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz struggle with the concept as journalists and colleagues from New York and New Jersey remind him of his opposition to the $50.5 billion recovery assistance package after Hurricane Sandy devastated that region in 2012. Cruz’s Texas GOP colleague, Sen. John Cornyn also voted against the bill.

Three GOP congressmen from Louisiana — Bill Cassidy (now a U. S. senator), Steve Scalise and John Fleming — also opposed the package, despite their state having received massive federal assistance after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Twenty-three members of Congress from Texas voted against Sandy relief. Then and now, the weak, deceitful excuse was that the bill was larded with extraneous items. As Cruz put it the other day, “Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.” (In 2013, Cassidy made the same claim.)

Some members who opposed the Sandy relief bill also complained the legislation did not impose offsetting cuts to pay for it. That’s a position few in Congress took as Louisiana and Mississippi were suffering in the fall of 2005. (Then-Rep. Mike Pence did, proposing offsetting reductions to Medicare.)

According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, however, the Sandy bill contained $16 billion in community development programs, $11.5 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, $10.9 billion for transportation system repairs, $5.4 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, $800 million for social service programs and $826 million for repairs to national park facilities. All that was related to Sandy.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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There is hope for everyone, even racists and Nazis

By Robert Mann

I love redemption stories because they show, as someone once observed, “Nothing is exempt from resurrection.” And few are more inspiring than one who renounces violence or hate and becomes an exemplar of tolerance or love.

Last week, I came across what first appeared to be a powerful redemption story about a Virginia Catholic priest who revealed his Ku Klux Klan past. Father William Aitcheson wrote about his white supremacist college days, which included burning a cross in the yard of a Maryland black family in 1977.

Besides the cross burnings, he mailed threatening letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King. After publishing his confession, Aitcheson stepped down from his Fairfax City church. My first thought was that I hope, for his parishioners’ sake, he returns to his pulpit because we need all the inspiring examples of redemption we can get.

Aitcheson’s story summoned images of other haters who buried their former selves and embraced a new life. I recalled the zealot Saul persecuting early Christians. An accessory to murder, he held the cloaks of those who stoned a man. After his dramatic conversion, St. Paul wrote most of what Christians call “the New Testament.”

Unlike Aitcheson, Paul didn’t hide his past. The same goes for my favorite redeemed sinner, the Englishman John Newton. Of his debauched early adulthood, Newton recalled, “I don’t believe that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer as myself.”
Newton’s depravity got him sold into virtual slavery in West Africa. He almost starved and was left for dead. His dramatic escape — part of what he called “many dangers, toils and snares” — later persuaded Newton that God preserved him for a higher purpose.

Newton’s spiritual awakening occurred during an Atlantic storm that nearly sank his ship. Despite his renewed faith, Newton entered the slave trade, making three voyages to transport human chattel. “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders,” Newton wrote in his 1788 pamphlet, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade.”

Newton’s conviction about the wickedness of slavery happened gradually. When he renounced slaving, it was not out of disgust with his wicked work but because he desired more time with his wife. Only as he studied to become a Church of England priest, did he reflect on his wretchedness.

During his 16 years as a priest in the village of Olney — about 60 miles north of London — attendance exploded as the charismatic, self-educated man shared his life story.

On New Year’s Day, 1773, Newton delivered a meditation to his congregation about God’s use of flawed individuals. He also recited the simple poem he wrote about his redemption: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”

Keep reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Teach your children well

By Robert Mann

When violent white supremacy exploded in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, many of us wondered how these young men could have gone awry, descending not only into bigotry but hate so virulent that they could embrace Nazism and murder in service of racial purity.

Where and how did they acquire their sick ideology? What did their parents teach or model for these men that led to their acceptance of such dark and cancerous evil? What could have been done to point them in another direction?

This week, I’ve also asked myself if i have done enough to teach my children about the dignity and inherent worth of every person.

I pray I have. This I know: If my daughter and son have learned anything about love and tolerance from their dad, it’s because my mother taught it to me.

In recent decades, few weeks have passed that I haven’t recalled a seminal, searing event of my childhood, a moment as inedible in my early memory as the Kennedy assassination or Neil Armstrong’s Moon walk. It was the Sunday morning in the late-1960s when my mother — outraged by the humiliation of a black woman who visited our church — dressed down our pastor.

The middle-aged woman was driving to worship when her car broke down in front of the Pinecrest Church of Christ in Beaumont, Texas. Not wishing to miss worship, she came inside. Most members welcomed her warmly. In acknowledging her, however, our pastor explained to the congregation the unusual circumstances that brought this interloper to us, the subtext being we could rest easy knowing she wouldn’t return.

My mother was livid.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link. 

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Grateful Obamacare is still alive? Thank Mary Landrieu

By Robert Mann

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is safe for now, and let’s hope Congress will fix its flaws and enhance it, something members should have done years ago. Correcting the ACA would be impossible if three Republican senators — Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Arizona’s John McCain — hadn’t opposed repealing the law and, with it, insurance for tens of millions of people.

As we praise them, however, let’s save some applause for former Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who cast a crucial 60th vote for the ACA in December 2009. In the decades-long fight for universal health care coverage — still an aspiration in the world’s wealthiest nation — few deserve praise more than Landrieu. If she had voted no, the bill might never have become law.

In 2009, Landrieu knew Louisiana’s politics were shifting to the right. In a state once dominated by Democrats, she was isolated. Her upcoming 2014 reelection, never a sure thing, was precarious. She eventually would run in the sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, a dangerous period for a congressional Democrat in the Deep South.

She knew the voters who sent her to Washington three times might reject her for supporting Obama’s health care program. “It was a very difficult vote,” Landrieu told me by phone from Washington on Wednesday.

If you were Landrieu in 2009, wondering what might increase your reelection chances, opposing Obamacare would have been a reasonable bet. “I knew that could be a career-ending vote,” she said. “It’s not that I doubted it was the right vote, but I knew the storm of disinformation” would blow long after Obama signed the bill and throughout its implementation.

I argued in March 2014 that Landrieu, while vulnerable, wouldn’t lose because of her ACA vote. The state’s political and demographic changes were greater factors in her loss to Republican Bill Cassidy. Landrieu, however, maintains “it was a factor.”

Still, had she opposed the bill, it might not have helped her much. As I suggested in 2014: “Had she stopped Obamacare, would Republicans be holding parades in her honor?” Nope. Republicans would have waged war on her, regardless of her ACA vote and would still have savaged her for supporting Obama 97 percent of the time (or, absent her pro-ACA vote, 96 percent).

With then-Gov. Bobby Jindal undermining Obamacare in Louisiana — and national Republicans waging a dishonest smear campaign — many Louisiana voters accepted the deceitful portrayal of the law he, then-Sen. David Vitter and other Republicans fed them.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.


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