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NEWS ANALYSIS Bolstered by Florida victory, voucher advocates set new goals

WASHINGTON, May 3 (JTA) — Bolstered by a victory in Florida, advocates for school vouchers are hoping for similar successes around the country. Florida will have the first statewide, taxpayer-supported voucher system when Gov. Jeb Bush, who made the tuition credits a key part of his campaign, signs a bill passed last week by the Florida legislature. The program, which offers tax dollars to attend private and religious schools to students in failing public schools, sets a precedent that has voucher proponents claiming victory and opponents preparing legal challenges. The voucher legislation was passed even as a measure that would have allowed prayer at school gatherings failed to come up on the last day of Florida’s legislative session. The voucher move is seen as a significant step in the national debate regarding the use of school vouchers. “If a state as significant as Florida makes use of” vouchers, the issue becomes central “to our political conversation,” said Marshall Breger, vice chairman of the Jewish Policy Center, a conservative think tank affiliated with the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group. “If Florida works, it will increase the political pressure” on other states seeking voucher programs and on cities to expand programs where vouchers already exist, said Breger, a law professor at Catholic University in Washington who has been an outspoken proponent of vouchers. The question of vouchers has divided the Jewish community along religious and political fault lines. Some activists see vouchers as a means to increase Jewish identity by enabling more parents to afford to send their children to Jewish day schools. It is also a way to rescue students of all backgrounds from failing public schools, they argue. But opponents fear that vouchers paying for religious school education will erode the separation of church and state. They also worry that vouchers will harm those public schools most in need of help by siphoning off the best students and the money that has paid for their education. Under the plan, state officials will continue an existing policy of grading all public schools. Students in the worst schools would qualify for the program. All students of those schools, regardless of income or grades, would then be eligible for vouchers of at least $4,000 per school year. In the first year, beginning fall of 1999, students at four Florida schools out of 3,000 statewide will be eligible for the program. Local officials expect the number of failing schools to rise to 170. Florida’s schools are regarded as some of the worst in the nation, and consistently rank near the bottom in national surveys based on standardized test scores. Florida’s program is not expected to affect attendance at Jewish day schools. No Jewish students are expected to be eligible for vouchers in the first year of the program and few, if any, would qualify in the second year, local Jewish activists said. Most Jewish activists in Florida vigorously oppose the voucher measure. “We believe that public funding going to private schools would direct funds from the neediest public schools and the neediest students and truly undermine the public education system,” said Sam Dubbin, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “And we believe that public money going to parochial schools is an inappropriate encroachment on the separation between church and state which we have always opposed,” he said. On the other side of the debate, Orthodox Union officials thanked Bush and Florida lawmakers for “setting an example of leadership and commitment.” In a letter to Bush, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the O.U., and Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, wrote that “the Orthodox community is committed to securing greater educational opportunities and empowerment for all American children and that we believe school-choice initiatives are a powerful tool to secure this critical goal.” The program is already under attack from church-state watchdogs. “This voucher program highlights what’s wrong with voucher programs generally. It zeroes in on failing schools, redirecting money to other schools and leaving the failing schools even worse off,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department. “It’s compounded when you add the church-state problems,” he said. Voucher opponents have been discussing their legal strategy even before the bill passed the Florida legislature. “This legislation ignores the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and several court rulings that clearly say that taxpayers cannot be forced to finance private religious education,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. But state officials and voucher proponents believe that the law will pass constitutional muster, in part because religious schools that accept the vouchers cannot require students to participate in religious activity. They can, however, teach religion classes. Breger said that the way the Florida legislation is formulated makes it difficult for opponents who claim that vouchers are intended as a backdoor way to aid parochial schools. “The rationale is neutral: to help students in schools that have failed,” he said. Although Florida is the first state to adopt such a program, Cleveland and Milwaukee already have citywide voucher programs. And in New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is crafting a voucher program, much to the dismay of the city’s school chancellor. On the state level, Maine and Vermont have targeted vouchers for students who live in rural areas without public schools. In Maine, small towns that do not have their own public school system provide vouchers to cover the costs for children to attend nearby non-religious public or private schools. Last week, the Maine Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that prevented five families from using state-funded vouchers to send their children to a church-affiliated school.