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Plugging the Brain Drain 

As Louisiana continues to lose well-educated residents and gain illiterate ones, state officials are attempting to reverse the trend.

Roughly 28 percent of people living in Louisiana cannot read this sentence. That's more than one in four people who aren't able to pick up a newspaper and understand it, sign a lease or mortgage and protect themselves, or even check their children's homework. Nationwide, only Mississippi has a higher percentage of residents unable to perform on the level of a fourth grader. Mississippi's 30 percent illiteracy rate isn't much worse than the Bayou State's shameful ranking. At the same time, a recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly two-thirds of the people who left Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005 — and never returned — were "well-educated."

As state officials try to figure out how to reverse that trend, Louisiana also faces a fiscal crisis. Massive budget cuts are expected during the next fiscal year (beginning July 1, 2009), and some slashing could occur sooner. These are tough times indeed, but slowing the brain drain may be the state's most challenging problem. It's doubtful the trend can be reversed any time soon, but many hope it can at least be stopped.

For starters, more than 163 schools statewide participate in a Department of Education program aimed at improving the literacy skills of students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. The overarching goal of "Ensuring Literacy for All" is to have all students reading and writing at or above their grade level by fourth grade. The program was expanded this year to include additional schools after the Legislature committed $10.5 million to the effort. State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek says the underlying goal is to put an emphasis back on the core fundamentals of all learning. "[Reading and writing] are the foundation for future academic achievement, and we cannot expect our students to perform well in other subjects until they have a firm grasp of these building blocks of education," he says.

It's a noble effort, but maybe the state needs to push a little harder. To join the literacy initiative, 85 percent of a school's faculty must commit to take part in the training and implementation associated with it. Lawmakers should look at making the program mandatory for all schools.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers suggest decreasing math and English requirements as a way to reduce dropout rates in Louisiana's public high schools. State Rep. Jim Fannin, a Democrat from Jonesboro who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is leading that charge. While that may appear to address Louisiana's 40 percent dropout rate, does lowering the bar really help curb illiteracy? That will be a debate worth watching.

At the state Board of Regents, which oversees all aspects of higher education, officials are pushing to revamp the formula that funds colleges and universities. Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen says Louisiana must increase the number of degrees and certificates it awards if it wants to be nationally and globally competitive. One way to achieve that goal, she says, is to adopt a performance-based funding model. The proposed new formula would provide incentives for producing more graduates with degrees and certificates, rather than just enrolling more students.

"This formula will require a significant investment from the state, but the timing is right to focus on accountability and transformational change in Louisiana," Clausen says. "Institutions that accept the challenge of producing more graduates, attracting federal research activity, and increasing enrollment in high-demand areas will provide Louisiana's taxpayers with a significant return on their investment."

Clausen must convince lawmakers to adopt her idea, which won't be easy. Perhaps because they have to answer to an electorate that is more than 25 percent illiterate, leges often have to be dragged along kicking and screaming when it comes to new ideas in education. For instance, earlier this year, Rep. Neil Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat, proposed an initiative that would help 100 college graduates purchase homes. He pitched the legislation as a way to help slow the tide of out-migration by enticing Louisiana grads to stay after graduation. "We're educating them, and then they go to Houston, Dallas, Atlanta or Washington, D.C.," Abramson says.

The Louisiana Housing Finance Agency would have managed the program, and the 100 winners of the "Grants for Grads" would have been selected in a drawing. The maximum grant would have been $10,000 per person, to be applied to a down payment on a new house. In exchange, graduates would have had to work in Louisiana for no less than five years. Lawmakers balked. A substantive debate in both chambers was barely waged.

Even with its alleged shortcomings, Abramson's proposal beats the status quo, which keeps 28 percent of Louisiana's residents from reading the bill. It may be too late to recapture many of those who have left for greener pastures, but it's never too late to address the future effects of illiteracy. When so many people literally can't read even the simplest document, it's time to look outside the four corners of the page.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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