French Boost in Louisiana

After Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed $100,000 funding for the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) during last year’s budget vetoes, French-speaking state lawmakers sought new ways to promote 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. The measures promote language immersion programs at public schools, raise funds for CODOFIL, and allow Cajuns to stamp their heritage on their license plates and driver’s licenses.

“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,” Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, said.

Louisiana drivers will now be able to get “I’m a Cajun” stamped on their driver’s licenses for a $5 annual fee, or new license plates declaring “I’m Cajun... and proud” or “I’m a Creole... and proud” for an extra $15 a year. Fees will go to CODOFIL to pay for scholarships through a program that trains new French teachers for Louisiana schools.

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 will require local school boards to create a dual-language immersion program for students if parents of at least 25 kindergarten students in the school district sign a petition seeking the program. For the law to kick in, qualified teachers also will have to be available — and no other immersion program can already exist in the district.

The first such programs could start as early as next fall. Louisiana has 5,000 students enrolled in dual-language immersion programs (28 French, ten Spanish, and one Chinese).

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.

Governor Jindal vetoed a bill requiring the state transportation department to ask federal officials to let Louisiana issue bilingual highway signs. He supports allowing such signs to include French, but disagreed with allowing signs to include other languages. Therefore, he issued an executive order asking the transportation department to follow the bill’s approach, but with restrictions that bilingual signs only include French.

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