As Louisiana continues to struggle with the reality of meeting our needs in a tough economy, we must also focus on setting long-term goals and making policy decisions that will ensure we reach those goals.

School ZoneThat won't be an easy task with another looming $1billion-plus budget shortfall. We must guard against the danger of cutting in a way that meets short term needs of reducing our budget, but causes irrevocable harm in the long run by not prioritizing the advancements that will lift Louisiana out of poverty.

Two studies released this week reinforce that need to focus on our future as we face immediate budget crisis. The first, a scorecard by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, held great results for Louisiana’s economic status, ranking us second in the nation for employment growth, sixth in home affordability, 11th in our rate of small business ownership and 12th for microenterprise ownership. All of this would seem to indicate a better means of attracting and retaining young, educated professionals, reversing the trend of outmigration, except for the rest of the report card – “F’s” in two key quality of life indicators that play an equal role in attracting the best and the brightest – education and healthcare.

In its report, CFED stated it plainly: Louisiana is failing in education and struggling in health care. The state ranked at or near the bottom in high school, two-year and four-year college degree attainment. In 8th grade reading and math proficiency, we ranked 48th and 46th. In health care, Louisiana came in 49th in health insurance coverage for low-income families and 48th in both overall health insurance coverage and employees insured by their employer.

The second study results underscore the flip side of the problem. According to a report based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates from the 2008 American Community Survey, Louisiana actually gained 6,728 people over the age of 25 between 2007 and 2008. However, as always, the devil is in the details. Lake Charles, Alexandria, and Lafayette experienced an influx of people over age 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, but every other major metropolitan area of the state saw a decrease. So while Louisiana continues to attract a skilled labor force, those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees are still leaving the state for greener pastures.

Such trained workers are necessary to drive our economy, but Louisiana can’t sustain itself on those jobs alone. We must diversify if we are to compete in the decades to come, and that means cultivating a new economy of high tech jobs connected to a highly-educated workforce. And in order to build this new economy, the state must focus on all quality of life measures – namely, education and health care. Why would a highly skilled college grad move his or her family to Louisiana if they had to worry about the quality of the education their children would receive or the status of health care outcomes in their community? By the same token, how can a company set up shop here, knowing it will be difficult to attract employees under such conditions?

It’s important that we keep these items linked together and prioritized as we cut the state’s budget, streamline state government operations, reconfigure higher education, and as our state leaders make the day-to-day decisions that affect our lives. Never before has a commitment to maintain our education accountability system, to restructure health care delivery, and to strive for economic growth and diversity through innovation been more critical.

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