Guest commentary: Politics threatens levee board reforms _lowres

Russel Honore'

The city of New Orleans will make history on Nov. 18 when it elects its first female mayor in its 300-year history. But to be more than a mere milestone, our next mayor needs to be bold and break with the past by building consensus around reordering priorities for New Orleans’ future.

Until now, the election has centered on the same issues that typically dominate local races: crime, streets, drainage and the like. But I would like to raise another issue that is critical not only for New Orleans parents and children but also for our future security and emergency preparedness: early care and education.

As a retired U.S. Army general who coordinated military relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and recently volunteered in Harvey and Maria relief efforts, I know from personal experience that our service members play an indispensable role when disasters strike. That is why I am so concerned that 76 percent of young people ages 17-24 in Louisiana, and 71 percent nationwide, are ineligible for military service primarily due to educational shortcomings, obesity and having a record of crime or drug abuse.

In New Orleans, at least 36 percent of children live in poverty. Research from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has shown that child poverty can lead to chronic, toxic stress that disrupts the architecture of the developing brain. Children in poverty are much more likely to experience exposure to violence, chronic neglect, and the accumulated burdens of economic hardship.

Research shows that high-quality early care and education can help prevent many of these problems and support children’s success. A long-term study of more than 1,300 children found that children in higher-quality child care were better prepared for school at age four compared to those in lower-quality child care. At age 15, they were still performing slightly above their peers and had significantly lower levels of behavior problems. Studies also show that child care that emphasizes healthy eating and physical activity can help reduce children’s risk of obesity.

Given the benefits of quality child care, it is unacceptable that less than 16 percent of at-risk New Orleans children from birth through age three have access to publicly funded child care. Two-thirds of New Orleans parents are working and need affordable, quality child care, which costs almost as much as tuition for a state college or university.

A local government’s budget is often a blueprint of priorities. It is little wonder that New Orleans struggles with violent crime and economic opportunity when we consider that fact that less than 3 percent of the City of New Orleans municipal budget goes to serving families and children.

A recent poll released by the New Orleans Campaign for Grade-Level Reading showed that 78 percent of registered New Orleans voters support increasing city funding to give more young children access to quality early care and education.

And the people of New Orleans know both intuitively and from the historic reductions in violent crime in the middle through late 1990s that investment in young people makes our communities safer and more resilient.

I urge New Orleans' next mayor and city council to prioritize investments in our youngest children. Expanding access to high-quality early care and education will build a solid foundation for the development of children’s mind, body and character. This will prepare them for success in school and many opportunities will be open to them, including the military for those who choose to serve.

Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, U.S. Army, retired, is best known as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, responsible for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas across the Gulf Coast.