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LSU Assoc. Dean for Research Roland Mitchell introduces himself and answers questions posed by the audience during a public education panel luncheon Tuesday organized by Volunteers in Public Schools at Juban’s restaurant. LSU communications professor Bob Mann , left and local public relations businessman and podcaster Clay Young, right, completed the panel which answered questions posed by the audience.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Speaking to a luncheon crowd at Juban’s restaurant Tuesday, LSU communications professor Bob Mann said all he heard when he first came to Louisiana decades ago was how bad the public schools were and how awful the teachers were.

But as he learned more, Mann said, he realized that was all wrong.

“The truth is the problem we have in this state is poverty,” Mann said.

Mann spoke as part of three-member panel that tackled public education issues. He was joined by Roland Mitchell, an LSU associate dean for research and academic services at the College of Human Sciences & Education, and Clay Young, a Baton Rouge marketing professional whose podcast often touches on education issues. The panel was organized by the nonprofit Volunteers In Public Schools.

Mann explained that poverty acts as an anchor, weighing down students across the state and causing problems that public schoolteachers are ill-equipped to handle and that too many residents ignore.

“If we’re not willing to face that fact, it’s never going to change,” he said.

Instead, the state has adopted a series of educational changes that haven’t worked well in his view.

“You name the so-called reform in this state and we’ve done it,” Mann said.

“You just opened up the floodgates, my friend,” Mitchell responded.

Mitchell offered a more historical perspective, noting this country has never embraced educating all of its citizens, especially if it would come at the expense of individuals with money and businesses.

“I would suggest that what schools really do is they reproduce the existing order,” Mitchell said.

And the schools have to deal with the ensuing problems, he said.

“We’re expecting teachers to solve a problem that we don’t have the wherewithal to talk about,” Mitchell said.

Young was the most optimistic of three. He said leaders are trying to improve public education, though it’s not easy.

An audience member questioned Young’s optimism given the longstanding problems with education in Louisiana.

“If there weren’t people in the Legislature trying to get things done, you’d be right,” Young responded.

Young said he’s optimistic because concerns about the quality of education are pervasive.

“There is not a single home in the inner city or the country club where parents don’t care about their child, and every kid can learn,” he said.

Asked whether universal preschool would ever be adopted in Louisiana, Young replied it’s quite doable.

“I think if you engage the public, they will surprise you,” Young said.

Mitchell said expanding early childhood education would mean troubled kids would receive effective early intervention and not enter the “school-to-prison pipeline.” He also such intervention might serve as a common meeting ground for law-and-order advocates and criminal justice reformers.

“You can use early childhood intervention to talk to people who typically don’t speak to each other,” Mitchell said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier