Louisiana's school voucher system under fire as state judge weighs its fate

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, AUG. 19 **Students move between classes at Dodge City High School in Dodge City, Kan., Wednesday, April 4, 2007. Seventy per cent of the students at the school are Hispanic. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, AUG. 19 **Students move between classes at Dodge City High School in Dodge City, Kan., Wednesday, April 4, 2007. Seventy per cent of the students at the school are Hispanic. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)  (AP)

The legal battle over Louisiana’s controversial school voucher program is getting its day in court.

Judge Tim Kelly began hearing arguments Wednesday in a state district court in Baton Rouge on whether the vouchers -- and how they’re paid for – are constitutional.

The complicated issue was thrust into the national spotlight after Louisiana enacted what some experts say is the most comprehensive education reforms in the country.

Louisiana lawmakers created the “Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program” earlier this year, with backing from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The legislation paved the way for qualifying families to use taxpayer dollars for private school tuition.

A voucher is issued by the state if a student either comes from a household earning less than two-and-a-half times the federal poverty level, equal to roughly $57,000 annually for a family of four, or if the child is enrolled in an underperforming public school. Louisiana's median household income was estimated at $42,000 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

State data shows 10,300 of the roughly 380,000 students who qualified for vouchers applied this year.

“Choice works,” Jindal said. “Competition works. Accountability works. There’s no reason we can’t do this, not only across our state but across the country.”

Louisiana has consistently had some of the worst test scores in the country.

According to 2011 figures from the Department of Education, eighth-graders ranked 49th in the country for reading and 47th for mathematics.

But the voucher program has sparked opposition. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit over the summer against the state, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Education. When the Louisiana Association of Educators followed with its own lawsuit, the two suits were combined. The Louisiana School Boards Association was later added to the list of groups challenging the voucher program.

Judge Kelly has set aside three days to hear the case, and a decision is expected soon.

Jindal says the system was broken, and something had to be done.

“I don’t know how you defend the status quo,” he said. “I don’t know how you look a child or parent in the eye and say wait. They only have one chance to grow up. We have spent decades and billions of dollars doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Valerie Evans, a New Orleans mother who used the voucher system to put her son, Gabriel, in a parochial school, said she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford such an opportunity.

“This program is a lifesaver for my child,” she said outside the courthouse. “That means getting my son out of a public school system that is filled with fear, confusion and violence, and getting him the education he needs and deserves.” .

Despite support from many parents, several school districts and teachers unions have sued the state, saying the program is unconstitutional.

Groups such as the Louisiana Federation of Teachers argue it’s illegal to use taxpayer dollars to fund private education.

The union’s president says the practice is robbing an already struggling public school system of cash and leaving those who aren’t eligible out in the cold.

“We are now going to extract money from a frozen formula to the detriment of the 700,000 students that are still in our public schools,” Steve Monaghan tells Fox News. “It is not the question of the 5,000 or 6,000 students that have chosen to use vouchers. What happens to the students that are still in the schools … be they A, B, C, D or F schools?”

Critics also say state lawmakers didn’t follow the proper rules when they created this program.

“The state of Louisiana, in its constitution, requires legislative instruments be of one purpose,” Monaghan argues. “The bill we are talking about contains at least six or seven purposes. So, it’s a violation of the constitution on those grounds.”

Casey Stegall joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 2007 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Dallas bureau. He previously served as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.