BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — After Gov. Bobby Jindal struck out funding for a Lafayette-based agency that promotes French language and culture during last year's budget vetoes, French-speaking state lawmakers sought new ways to celebrate Louisiana's Francophone heritage.
In the recently-ended legislative session, that bipartisan group of lawmakers filed and won passage of bills that celebrate the state's Cajun culture and French roots, in a state where residents of some towns still speak French in their post offices and grocery stores.
The measures promote language immersion programs at public schools, drum up money for the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, and allow proud Cajuns to stamp their heritage on their license plates and driver's licenses.
Jindal has signed the bills into law.
Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, said Jindal's veto of $100,000 for CODOFIL in 2012 drew so much attention that lawmakers realized they should find new ways to promote the agency and its goals.
"People who don't speak French but come from a French background, a lot of people want to see it passed on to their children. They want to still be able to go to the festivals and hear the music," Ortego said.
Two Breaux Bridge Republican legislators decided to highlight Cajun pride with their bills.
Sen. Fred Mills brought legislation that will let people get "I'm a Cajun" stamped on their driver's licenses for a $5 annual fee, starting Jan. 1. Rep. Mike Huval sponsored a bill creating new license plates declaring "I'm Cajun ... and proud" or "I'm a Creole ... and proud." Once at least 1,000 apply, the plates will cost $15 a year a year, on top of standard charges.
Dollars from both fees will go to CODOFIL to pay for scholarships through a program that trains new French teachers for Louisiana classrooms.
The most far-reaching legislation creates the "Immersion School Choice Act," which sets up a parent-trigger law to establish programs that teach public school children in another language, usually French or Spanish.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, will require local school boards to create a foreign language immersion program for students if parents of at least 25 students enrolled in kindergarten in the school district sign a petition seeking the program.
For the school board requirement to kick in, foreign language teachers also will have to be available — and no other immersion program can already exist in the district.
The first immersion programs that can be created under the petition method would start in the 2014-15 school year.
In immersion, classes are taught in the foreign language for at least 60 percent of the day.
Louisiana has immersion education programs in nine southern parishes, with 5,000 students enrolled, according to the Department of Education. French is the most popular, with 28 schools offering French immersion programs, while 10 schools have Spanish immersion and one Lafayette school has a Chinese program.
Each of the programs has a waiting list, LaFleur said.
He said while many people support the programs to preserve Cajun heritage, scores also show immersion students perform better on standardized tests and in core subjects like English and math.
"It just works," he said during a House Education Committee hearing on the bill. "This will empower parents who want this better curriculum that has demonstrated its successes over and over again."
Legislative approval came despite opposition from local school board officials and superintendents who said while the programs show strong academic value, forcing districts to create them adds a new expense they cannot afford.
"It was our hope that the instrument would be more permissive ... rather than a mandate from the state to the locals at a time when mandates are numerous and costly to systems," said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, in an e-mail.
Ortego pushed a bill requiring the state transportation department to ask federal officials to let Louisiana issue bilingual highway signs.
Jindal supported allowing the signs to include French, but he disagreed with allowing signs to include other languages. So, he vetoed Ortego's bill and issued an executive order asking the transportation department to follow the bill's approach, with restrictions that bilingual signs only include French.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.