If it was a bit of a surprise that Gov. Bobby Jindal would pick New Orleans, a place where he never found much electoral support, as one of the first stops on his farewell tour of the state, it certainly was no accident he wound up Tuesday at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School in Gentilly Woods.
More than three-quarters of the school’s students get vouchers to help pay their tuition as part of a program that Jindal hopes will be one of the defining legacies of his time in office.
However, supporters of the program have at least some reason to worry as John Bel Edwards prepares to take the reins in Baton Rouge in January. The Democratic governor-elect won office with the strong support of teachers unions that have spent years fighting to stop the voucher program’s spread.
Jindal took the opportunity Tuesday to continue pressing his case.
“If we want kids to grow up and realize their potential and get good-paying jobs, we need to make sure their education doesn’t depend on their ZIP code or income,” he said.
Meeting with students, parents and teachers at St. Benedict, the governor said, “I think anybody that spends any time with these parents and kids will realize what an important program this is.”
As a member of the Legislature, Edwards was an outspoken opponent of the broader shift in education policy that Jindal brought about, including expanded roles for charter schools and vouchers and rating systems for schools and teachers.
Those stances made him a natural ally of the teachers unions, although since the election Edwards has sought to allay fears he would seek to fully roll back the changes made in the past eight years.
Edwards has proposed trimming back the voucher program by putting new limits on who is eligible for it, and he has suggested he favors new limits on the state’s ability to take over local schools. He also has pushed for laws that would prevent the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from overriding school districts on charter decisions.
New Orleans is ground zero for the fights over vouchers and charter schools in the state. It was a pilot site for the voucher program, and its public school system is made up almost entirely of charters.
Education policy was one of the things Jindal and Edwards discussed during a transition meeting shortly after the election.
About 7,000 students in Louisiana receive vouchers to go to private schools, including 63 of the 80 students attending St. Benedict, a predominantly black Catholic school.
Lori Moran, whose children are enrolled in the first and fourth grades at St. Benedict through the voucher program, said she and other parents are prepared to fight to keep the program in place.
Moran said she doesn’t have a problem with the public schools — she also has a 21-year-old daughter who graduated as valedictorian from a public school — but added that the Catholic school provides more discipline and one-on-one instruction for her boys.
“The teachers are so dedicated, and there’s not a whole lot of kids to where they can’t function,” she said.
Jindal spent most of the morning in classrooms, listening to songs from a student chorus and chatting with pupils.
He took questions from students about how he became governor, why he quit the presidential race and why he changed his name to Bobby, replying with answers that have become well-worn on the campaign trail.
Interspersed with the questions and small talk about the students’ hopes for Christmas presents and future careers, Jindal also dropped in words of encouragement.
“If you work really hard in school, if you listen to your parents and your teachers, there’s no limit to what you can be,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.