Focus on Issues: Jewish Debate over Vouchers Comes As Congress Presses Issue
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Focus on Issues: Jewish Debate over Vouchers Comes As Congress Presses Issue

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The pledge by Republican leaders to make school voucher legislation a top priority in the 105th Congress comes as the organized Jewish community is re-examining its approach to the controversial issue.

At its annual conference here this month, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella organization of local and national Jewish groups, will debate the notion of providing federally funded tuition vouchers for use at private and parochial schools.

NJCRAC has long opposed voucher initiatives — also known as “school choice” – – on both constitutional and policy grounds.

But increasing disillusionment with the state of public education, coupled with concerns about the often prohibitive cost of Jewish day school education, has prompted many in the community to take a new look at the issue.

Jews on both sides of the debate see a pressing need to bolster Jewish education, particularly in light of the “continuity” crisis. Sharp differences, however, persist over how to balance that imperative against church-state concerns.

Most in the organized Jewish community steadfastly assert that the idea of handing out federal funds to pay for education at a religious school runs headlong into the wall separating church and state.

For their part, voucher advocates, led by the Orthodox community, remain confident of their constitutional footing. They argue that because vouchers would go directly to families, which can then decide how to use them, the practice does not translate into government endorsement of religion.

They also point to school choice as the best bet for improving access to a quality Jewish education.

“The Jewish community should be looking at the issue in terms of its long-range interests of Jewish survival in the United States, which argues in favor of programs that would support secular education in Jewish schools,” said Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney specializing in First Amendment law who has argued dozens of cases for the Orthodox and Lubavitch communities.

Voucher opponents agree that Jewish education needs a boost, but they do not see federally funded vouchers as an appropriate response.

Robert Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, believes that ensuring access to a quality Jewish education is a task best taken up by the Jewish community, not government.

Jewish continuity “is too valuable to be left to anybody else,” said Rifkind, who along with Lewin, will debate the issue at the NJCRAC plenum.

“I don’t understand why it is that the most affluent, the most successful, best-educated Jewish community in the history of the world” cannot continue the tradition of Jews looking “after the Jewish education of their own kids,” he said.

In addition to constitutional concerns, opponents also assert that school choice initiatives threaten to undermine the public education system by tapping an already inadequate pool of resources.

“School choice gets packaged in a way that on the surface appeals to inner city people and suggests innovation in education, but unfortunately results in a diversion of limited federal resources from public education to the private and religious school sector,” said Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office.

Proponents counter that voucher programs would actually improve public schools by forcing them to become more competitive with private institutions.

Some voucher advocates in the Jewish community concede, however, that the voucher system’s impact on the public school system is not their principal concern.

David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said his organization supports voucher initiatives partly out of its own “parochial concern” of making Jewish education more affordable.

But, he added, “it’s a smart idea generally to allow parents maximal choice in an issue as important as the education of their children.”

Some of those in the field of Jewish education, meanwhile, doubt that vouchers will amount to a panacea.

Rabbi Philip Field, head of the Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, does not believe that voucher plans are “aggressive enough” to make much of a dent in day school tuition costs, which at his school stands at just over $10,000 per year.

“Plus you deal with the other issue of crossing the church-state line,” said Field, whose school is hosting a national conference next month on the challenges facing Jewish secondary education.

In taking up what has proved to be one of the nation’s most contentious education issues — and one of the most divisive among Jews — NJCRAC said it wants the Jewish community to become actively involved not just in the debate over vouchers, but in the larger national dialogue about fixing the education system.

NJCRAC will debate the issue in Washington this month and will look to sharpen its policy on vouchers over the course of the coming year. No vote is expected at the conference.

“Our decision to revisit this issue this year is an attempt to make our policies as relevant as possible and to confirm that the community still feels as strongly” opposed to vouchers “as it has in the past,” said Craig Sumberg, the organization’s director of public information and legal affairs.

NJCRAC, he added, decided to revisit its traditional position “in light of the not insubstantial support in parts of the community for policies like vouchers.”

For his part, Lewin said he hopes NJCRAC’s decision to re-examine the issue “reflects some willingness to modify positions.” But Hordes of ADL said Jews need to be careful “in ensuring that the solutions we come up with for the real problems that are there don’t undermine our commitment to the principles upon which our religious liberty has been built.”

NJCRAC isn’t the only Jewish organization that plans to weight in on the issue. The Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition, is launching a campaign to promote school vouchers.

Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are gearing up for what promises to be the most concerted push ever mounted for voucher legislation.

GOP leaders last month identified school choice as one of their top 10 legislative priorities. A bill called the “Safe and Affordable Schools Act” has emerged as the leading vehicle.

Sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), the bill would create a $50 million five-year pilot program offering vouchers to low-income parents whose children attend an “unsafe school.”

The outlook for passage of the bill remains unclear. In the last Congress, debate over a school voucher plan for the District of Columbia died in the Senate when Republicans were unable to override a Democrat-led filibuster.

The Senate has since taken on a more conservative face, but enacting voucher legislation remains a particularly daunting task given President Clinton’s stated opposition to the idea.

As Washington mulls the issue, debate over school choice continues in many states. In Ohio and Wisconsin — the only two states that have implemented voucher plans — court decisions have so far produced mixed results.

Voucher advocates were dealt a legal setback last month when a Wisconsin state judge struck down a Milwaukee plan to use taxpayer money to send poor children to religious schools. A similar plan in Cleveland was upheld in an Ohio state court last year. Both decisions are being appealed.

The two plans have been advanced as possible national models. Legal observers say either case could reach the Supreme Court within the next year or two.

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