APPEL: How Do You Fix New Orleans’ Crime Epidemic?

In a poll published by the Advocate participants were asked what the answer to New Orleans’ growing crime problem was and what would make New Orleans better, the context of the questions being in the near term. A significant percentage of respondents picked education as the answer.

I know that this will sound strange coming from a retired Senator whose focus was education reform, but that answer is more wrong than right.

For the long-term viability of any city or state, education is a critical element of an overall social and economic strategy. But let us face reality: if we had a great system today it would be years before we would see any positive impact from it.

Pragmatically, the children of New Orleans who attend public schools are fundamentally unprepared and, in countless cases, come from dysfunctional families. So that only an entire scholarly career under a high-quality education regime could offer any hope for a positive outcome. But we do not have a high-quality education regime, and there are built-in impediments to achieving one.

In an effective system, a student starting kindergarten today would take twelve years before they have achieved basic knowledge and ethics enough to be ready for the workforce. And that means just for an entry level job. Given the need for post-secondary training and work skill experience it would be a decade or so before that student would contribute significantly to the economy. In other words, in a perfect world if we start today, it will be a couple of decades before we see positive outcomes for society.

In another light, we have effectively come to a place where not only are schools expected to teach traditional subject matters, but today to a significant extent, schools are also expected to substitute for family support. In a better time, there was an expectation that the family was expected to instill social attributes such as conflict resolution, morals, respect for society and law, healthy lifestyles, sexual relations, mental health, ambition, dedication, and so many others. Today, society ignores the inability of families to fulfill this need and has accepted that the classroom should substitute for the home. Not only is this dereliction of societal responsibility unfair to teachers, but without the family support our expectations must be tempered in a negative way.

So, though we in the business and civic world are conditioned to react that education is the immediate answer to our city’s steady decline, it just is not so. That is not to say that we should not place strong emphasis on reforming education in order to see better outcomes in the future; it just means that we must get over the crutch of looking to education as a quick solution to the really bad policies and leadership that have made our city and state unattractive to so many.

What is absolutely true is that if we fail to act to reform education we will be permanently stuck in economic malaise, marked by growing economic irrelevance and a rapidly expanding, under-performing strata of citizens who be addicted to government support and who will contribute mightily to a whole slew of social ills.

We must understand that our system of public education serves grownups far better than it does students. Refocusing expectations toward students is a first step, closely followed by reversing the acceptability of the loss of critical family support by normalizing the concept of ever-expanding government succor. Educated, productive citizens must be the goal. That is the definition of the outcome of reform, in effect it depends upon our recognition that our future is subject to making the tough decisions and implementing disciplined reforms. Only then will that decades long education results clock start in motion, the clock that times out with a better society.

We do not know if or when our system of education will improve, when we start that education clock. Therefore, if New Orleans wants to remain viable in the 21st century world, we must for now seek to import educated people from elsewhere. They in turn bring the hope we can create a critical mass of enough economic activity so that our masses of un- or under-educated people can find suitable low-level employment on which they can survive and then perhaps acquire skills and move up. I know that sounds ugly, but that is where we are. Convincing ourselves that if we just improve education, we will quickly see a better place is worse than facing reality. It tempts our people with a false hope that leads to citizen acquiescence in prolonging bad policies, the false allure to a future that does not exist.

Ironically, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as these are the very policies that have brought on economic discomfort in the first place.

As we wait to see the benefits of a reformed education system, the immediate fix is to create a rising tide of economic prosperity that does not currently exist, in order for all to have an opportunity to seek a share of.

Over time, assuming we have fixed the education system, we will have a growing number of educated native citizens to fill ever more good jobs. As increasingly educated and trained locals take on jobs that pay better wages and as more small businesses flourish because the economic core is growing the need to attract in-migration diminishes. But all of this depends on when we start that clock.

Economic realities are ugly. New Orleans is effectively being governed by leaders steeped in 21st century carpet-bag ideas, concepts which take the form of a de facto transfer of wealth mandated by local government and assumes that this practice is good policy. History, even our own current history, demonstrates the folly of these ideas as we see they are counter-productive to any viable city in a capitalist society. The ideas and policies that today govern our world are foreign to us, they are Progressive concepts born in the Northeast and the West, areas that even now are seeing people and business flee to our southern neighbors.

The way out is home-grown ideas that are realistic in their expectations and pragmatic in their execution. What we need are for our leaders to recognize that a rising tide indeed lifts all boats, and that carpet-bag policies may feel good and may be politically popular, but they only exasperate the slippery slope that we tread upon.

What can we do to avoid an ugly future for our city? First, we must come to grips with our reality. We must address the near-term period, say ten to thirty years, without believing that the education fairy will come in the night and make all things better. The near-term strategy must be based upon making our city and state economically appealing to business growth and relocation. Parallel we must reform education so that the momentum from the near-term reforms will gain impact as we go forward. In other words, fix the now and prepare for the then.

And what if we do not accept the realities that we must have a growing economy in the near term coupled with a longer-term expectation of prosperity and growth resulting from improved education outcomes? Well, every day the Advocate runs countless stories concerning carjackings, murder and violent crime. If we continue to allow ourselves to continue to accept carpet bag ideas that violate the laws of economics and of human nature, then the Advocate will have to hire more crime reporters and the moving companies will need more vans to move our best and brightest to their new homes.

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