Dec. 26: Nearing the end, vouchers remain a key Jindal priority _lowres

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attends the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

After nearly eight years and countless policies, Gov. Bobby Jindal has largely singled out one program he hopes will remain intact after he leaves office on Jan. 11 — school vouchers.

Republican Jindal took the highly unusual step of asking Democratic Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, a critic of vouchers, to give the student assistance a fair hearing before he takes action.

“I did ask John Bel, the governor-elect, to meet with the parents, meet with some of these kids, before he makes any decision,” Jindal said in an interview.

“I was pleased that he agreed to do that,” he said.

Vouchers allow low-income students who attend troubled public schools to qualify for state aid so they can attend a private or parochial school.

The aid, which was once limited to New Orleans, was expanded statewide in 2012 as part of Jindal’s sweeping education overhaul legislation.

More than 7,000 students get the assistance in the current school year, up 290 percent since 2011-12.

Edwards, who as a state House member opposed the expansion, insists he has no plans to scrap vouchers when he assumes office.

But backers of the assistance, both before and after the election, repeatedly have warned that the program is in danger.

Edwards was supported in the campaign by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a longtime opponent of vouchers. The governor-elect also was the lead witness when the LFT challenged the law. The lawsuit forced the state to change the way vouchers are funded.

Earlier this year, Edwards unsuccessfully sponsored legislation that would have limited vouchers for kindergarten students only to those who would otherwise have to attend public schools rated D or F.

Some allies believe he wants to limit all vouchers only to students who attend D and F schools, not those rated C, D and F.

Edwards told the annual meeting of the LFT in Lake Charles that, while he would not push to end the aid, he wants it used only for low-income students in failing schools.

Some lawmakers contend too many schools are labeled “failing” and that only those with F grades truly meet that description.

Jindal highlighted his eleventh-hour focus on vouchers during a visit this month to St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School in Gentilly Woods in New Orleans, where more than three-fourths of the students are voucher recipients.

“Anyone who hears the firsthand stories will be impressed,” Jindal said in the interview. “Hearing firsthand from the parents is very powerful.”

Longtime opponents of the state aid say the governor’s priorities are off target.

“I guess every governor wants to find the good things they think came out of their particular administrations,” said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.

“Of course, I have a different opinion from the governor on touting vouchers as sort of his legacy,” Meaux said. “If he is looking for that grain of good, I think he needs to look elsewhere for his legacy.”

Critics contend vouchers are a drain on already pinched state aid for public schools. The price tag this year is about $42 million.

Meaux and others also argue that vouchers have failed to deliver on the promises of supporters.

They note further that some schools that accept voucher students have been embroiled in controversy and that some of the schools’ standardized test scores have been dismal.

Eric Lewis, a former Louisiana director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a longtime backer of vouchers, said Jindal’s push is understandable in light of the growth of the program.

“I would be hopeful that our newly elected governor would talk to parents and kind of understand how it is going to benefit them,” Lewis said.

Eva Kemp, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said Jindal’s push is understandable “given his political aspirations,” a reference to the governor’s interest in national politics.

Aside from some possible modifications, Kemp said, she does not see Edwards pulling back on a wide range of school changes enacted in recent years, including charter schools and accountability measures.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association and chairman of Edwards’ K-12 transition team, said vouchers were sold as a way to let students escape failing schools.

But he noted that, under current law, kindergarten students who would otherwise qualify for an A or B school can get the state aid.

“The emphasis on vouchers by the outgoing governor highlights a fundamental disagreement in philosophy between Jindal and locally elected school boards,” Richard said in an email response to questions.

Jindal said vouchers are working and, in many cases, allowing children for the first time to feel safe in school.

“Of all the things we have done, education reform has been one of the most important,” he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.