New Orleans — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told students at St. Mary’s Academy that he was there to learn lessons to take back to Washington, D.C.

The Virginia Republican toured the school, visiting classrooms and asking the girls what they liked best about their school. He was particularly interested in asking students who had come from public schools how they thought St. Mary’s was different.

He told the students that they should aspire to be congresswomen — and that the role of Congress is to help children like them make more opportunities available to come to schools like St. Mary’s.

At a roundtable discussion following the tour, Cantor spoke with parents who were able to take their kids out of failing schools and receive scholarships to Catholic schools through the state’s Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program.

At St. Mary’s, about 75 students receive scholarships through the state’s voucher program.

The program was ruled unconstitutional in December by state District Judge Timothy Kelley because it relies on money intended in “plain and unambiguous” terms solely for public schools. But state officials have said that they plan to continue funding the program regardless of the lawsuit.

Cantor called the program a vindication of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform, providing opportunities for children who would have not otherwise had them. “We’re struggling in Washington with education and making sure we don’t leave anyone out,” he said.

Parent Corinne Celestine told Cantor that being able to send her daughter to St. Mary’s with the voucher is “truly a blessing — I do want what’s best for my children, but sometimes you do need help.” Celestine said she could not work for health-related reasons.

Celestine said that her daughter was being instilled with religion, morals, values and standards that the surrounding community lacks.

Essence Jackson said she was advised to put her kindergartener in private or parochial school because the public school where she was attending pre-K couldn’t offer everything she needed.

Jackson called her daughter a “butterfly,” and said that she had seen a 360-degree change since starting in Catholic School.

If it were not publicly funded, Jackson said she would do whatever she needed to do — work three jobs — to keep her child in Catholic school.

Eric Lewis, Black Alliance for Educational Options State Director, provided Cantor with the basics: The program went statewide last year, expanding the vouchers from about 600 students to about 5,000. For the first time this year, families can apply for the vouchers through the OneApp enrollment process, which Recovery School District Student Enrollment Director Gabriela Fighetti said was unprecedented nationally in terms of allowing kids to apply to both public and private schools on the same application.

“Every parent has choice,” Fighetti said, as she explained how parents can list their top eight choices on the application and the OneApp algorithm then “maximizes the number of families that get what they want.”

When asked about accountability, Superintendent for Archdiocese schools Jan Lancaster said that they are first accountable to parents. The archdiocese is working to align its curriculum with state standards over the next two years, she said, and the average ACT score is 22.7 in archdiocese schools.

Concerning school choice, Fighetti said there is still a long way to go in improving test scores, but the significant progress made following Katrina is in part attributed to parents having more choices.

Lewis said that many parents are frustrated about the legal battle and can’t believe that anyone would oppose the program.

Part of the issue, Lewis said, is that people see the program as using public money to fund private schools, depriving the local school board of the per-pupil money.

But the state saves money, Lewis explained, in that the tuition at St. Mary’s that the state pays is less than the approximate local and state allocation of $8,500 per student.

In terms of the current legislation, Lewis said that “We’re prayerful that it will be successful.” If not, Lewis said they would work to identify alternative funding. “We can’t allow the kids to go back,” he said.

Of the 45,000 students in New Orleans in public schools, Fighetti said that the approximately 2,500 on the scholarship program is relatively small, and something they hope to expand.

Cantor asked about tracking students who are at private or parochial schools compared to those at charter schools. Lancaster said that all kids on scholarship take the LEAP test — a commonality that can be measured.

Cantor said that Jindal’s program proves that parents “do have and should have the right to a quality education.”

He said he wants to take back to Washington the concept of successfully making the money follow the children.

Asked about the separation of church and state and public money being used to teach children creationism, Cantor cited the secular part of an education at St. Mary’s as being in line with the same educational mission that would be provided by the local school board.

“I think we can accomplish both and protect the Bill of Rights,” he said.

Zack Kopplin, a college student who has been fighting the program at a national level, said that he agrees “100 percent” that all kids deserve a quality education.

“Teaching creationism is not a high quality education,” Kopplin said.

By nature the program lacks fundamental accountability, Kopplin said. He said that last year he went before State Superintendent John White to bring attention to about 19 participating schools — getting more than $4 million in public funds — that taught lessons including humans and dinosaurs coexisting, dragons being real, the KKK fighting against a decline in morality and Africa being in need of religion.

Kopplin said that accountability measures in place are being ignored by the state, and only two schools have been removed from the program, neither for reasons related to curriculum.

“Everything about the program sounds like a bad idea and I don’t think Eric Cantor should be copying it,” Kopplin said.

Asked about using St. Mary’s as a measure of success in light of numerous statewide and thousands of national closures of Catholic schools, such as Cathedral Academy in the French Quarter where about 65 percent of the students attend under the voucher program, Cantor said he imagined the decisions were being made to maximize available resources.