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Orthodox Senator Launches Debate over School Vouchers

The Senate’s only Orthodox Jew has launched a controversial drive to give low- income parents vouchers to send their children to private and parochial schools.

To the cheers of Orthodox Jewish organizations and the boos of civil liberties and Reform Jewish groups, Sen. Joseph Liberman (D-Conn.), joined by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), one of Congress, staunchest conservatives, introduced the Low- Income Schools Choice Demonstration Act last Friday.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism said it is reviewing its stance on the issue, which has proved to be one of the most explosive and divisive among American Jews.

The Lieberman-Coats bill, narrowly tailored to apply only to a designated number of low-income areas for a trial period, would most likely not apply to many Jewish families.

However, traditional opponents and advocates of school vouchers alike are joining the fray because of the precedent they believe this legislation could set.

Jewish supporters of school vouchers have argued that they need the money to send their children to Jewish day schools, while opponents argue that giving federal money for private education violates the fundamental separation between church and state.

Many opponents in the Jewish community also say a voucher system will harm America’s public schools when role models and better-than-average students flock to private and parochial schools, taking valuable federal dollars with them.

Opponents also point to the dangers of opening up federal funding to religious schools.

“Once the barrier is broken, any group that says it’s religious can get money,” said Albert Schanker, the outspoken president of the American Federation of Teachers.

In an interview, Schanker went as far as to say that “vouchers would essentially allow the United States to finance Nation of Islam schools.”

At a news conference unveiling the bill last week, Lieberman acknowledged the possibility that a school run by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is widely believed to be anti-Semitic, could receive federal money through vouchers.

But the senator said the bill minimizes that risk by requiring participating schools to comply with all civil rights laws.

There are currently to known Nation of Islam-run schools in the country.

Lieberman also argued that after three years, “we would have a data base and know where the money is going.”

The legislation under consideration would not apply cross the country, but instead would create up to 20 demonstration projects for three years to test the theory that vouchers will benefit children in the poorest American school districts.

Only children whose families live near the poverty line and are eligible for free for subsidized school lunches would qualify for the vouchers, which would equal the amount of money the public school spends annually for one pupil.

The measure asks for $30 million to fund the program for the first year. The Department of Education would be responsible for determining the pilot areas. Then, based on the number of pupils eligible for the funding, the department would come back to Congress to determine funding for the second and third years.

At his news conference, Liberman argued that a voucher program will give “more children the opportunity they deserve.”

“Lower-income parents who want their kids to learn in a religious environment should have that chance, just as wealthier parents do,” he said.

Although generally supportive of school vouchers, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations said it has some problems with the Coats-Lieberman bill because of its own concern about separation of church and state.

The organization supports vouchers for school choice, only if the money does not pay for the religious portions of the curriculum.

A school voucher bill “should be written and can be written so money does not of directly to fund religious education,” said Betty Ehernberg, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.

In a letter thanking LIeberman for introducing the bill, O.U. leaders wrote, “Properly drawn educational choice programs can constitutionally and equitably provide funds for the secular portion of the education of non-public school students.”

In contrast, Agudath Israel of America, the fervently Orthodox group, is unconditionally supporting the bill.

“Vouchers should be applied as broadly as possible. It is the parent’s choice,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public affairs.

In Capitol Hill visits during the group’s mission here this week, Agudah leaders were expected to ask members of Congress to support vouchers.

Sen. Lieberman said “he feels very strongly” that the courts will find his school voucher bill constitutional.

Opposed to vouchers because federal money would go to fund religious schools, the Anti-Defamation League disagreed with Lieberman’s assertion.

“The bottom line is that no federal court has ever upheld using vouchers,” said ADL’s legal counsel in Washington, Michael Lieberman, who is not related to the senator.

ADL, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism all plan to fight the Coats-Lieberman bill.

A similar bill, which Lieberman also supported, was defeated in the Senate last year 52 to 41.

Observers say that if all the senators who returned to Capitol Hill this year vote the same way as they did last year, supporters start with 37 votes and opponents with 44. The new senators and those who didn’t last year are an unknown in the debate.

Of the 10 Jewish members of the last Senate, all but Lieberman voted against the bill last year.

Opponents, however, lost one of Capitol Hill’s strongest Jewish voices against vouchers when Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a Democrat, of Ohio retired.

“We will certainly feel his loss,” ADL’s Lieberman said, predicting that the coming months will pose “a challenge for us” to drum up the votes to defeat the measure.

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