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Jews have mixed reactions to voucher case

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CLEVELAND, Dec. 13 (JTA) – Most major Jewish organizations hailed this week’s federal appeals court decision, which struck down the Cleveland school voucher program as unconstitutional.

But some groups are not cheering as loudly as they once might have, showing how the Jewish approach to issues of church and state has evolved over the years alongside socioeconomic and religious changes in the community.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on Dec. 11 that Cleveland’s school vouchers principally went to religious institutions, violating the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

As other states debate and establish controversial voucher programs, the Ohio ruling very likely may become the test case ultimately reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Orthodox Jews, who typically send their children to Jewish day schools, long have supported publicly financed tuition vouchers. Opposition to such programs traditionally has been strong among Conservative and Reform Jews, historic opponents of state aid to parochial schools.

Now, as growing numbers of Conservative and Reform Jews also send their kids to Jewish day schools, members of these two streams are re-examining their earlier anti-voucher stance.

“The Jewish community doesn’t look at the church-state issue the same way it used to,” said Joel Ratner, Cleveland-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the voucher program. “Vouchers is the issue where that change is most felt. Clearly the consensus that existed in previous decades has broken down.”

Proponents say the educational choice provided by the five-year-old Cleveland voucher program is a way for low-income children to escape failing inner-city public schools, but the judges ruled that parents had no real options.

No suburban schools, and few nonreligious ones, accept the vouchers. About 96% of the 3,700 participating students use the state aid of up to $2,5000 to attend parochial schools, primarily Catholic ones.

The “voucher program has the primary effect of advancing religion, and that it constitutes an endorsement of religion and sectarian education,” wrote Judge Eric Clay.

While there may be a greater diversity of opinion within the Jewish community, Jewish organizations reacted to the decision along traditional lines, with Orthodox institutions deploring the ruling and the remainder applauding it.

Today’s ruling “is a decisive rebuttal to those who believe that vouchers are compatible with religious liberty,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

“The court’s decision bolsters those who oppose efforts to erode the cherished constitutional principle of church-state separation with respect to public funding of religious schools,” said Bruce Ramer, president of the American Jewish Committee.

In the opposing camp is David Zwiebel, executive vice-president for governmental and public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization. Agudath Israel filed an amicus curiae brief seeking to uphold the voucher program.

“Those who are committed to do all in their power to preserve the public school monopoly and to prevent parents from having meaningful educational options will surely have reason to be pleased with the outcome of this case,” Zwiebel said.

The diversity of opinion about the voucher dispute and, in a larger sense, the entire issue of church-state separation displays deep changes in Jews’ views of education, said Joyce Garver Keller, a lobbyist for Ohio Jewish Communities, a consortium of Ohio Jewish agencies.

No longer new immigrants seeing public school education as a way to break down barriers and grab a piece of the American dream, Jews today are more concerned that their children may be abandoning their heritage, Garver Keller said.

“Under a different set of circumstances, Jews” saw “public tax money going to pay for religious education that was Christian,” she said. “There was a feeling it wasn’t appropriate for public tax dollars to be spent to promote religion, and someone else’s religion. The question today is different. Tax money for religious schools today,” some Jews now feel, “is not to promote religion but to allow Jews to go to Jewish schools.”

Jews also are concerned with the deteriorating quality of urban schools and the unfair plight of poor children, whose parents can’t afford private school, Garver Keller said. These Jews see vouchers as a way to deliver quality education.

“There’s a definite change in how the Jewish community views vouchers,” said Cleveland attorney Harry Brown, president of Agudath Israel of Cleveland and vice-president of the national organization. The Jewish view of vouchers has changed as Jews have become more aware of the problem of Jewish assimilation, he said, and as Jewish day schools that address that concern have flourished.

Supreme Court decisions have held that public dollars can pay for therapy and remedial services and, most recently, computers for religious schools.

“There’s ample room within the constitutional separation of church and state to permit vouchers,” Brown said.

Cleveland civil rights attorney Kenneth Myers, who has written about the Cleveland voucher program for Time magazine, said the “drift in Jewish opinion on vouchers is related to the viability of public schools, rather than to the church-state issue. The only reason that anybody perceives a need for vouchers is because of failures of public schools. The question of who pays is somewhat secondary.”

But who pays is precisely the constitutional issue.

No Jewish children or Jewish day schools participate in the Cleveland voucher program. But Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, which funds scholarships to Jewish parochial schools of all denominations, said voucher programs can allow more families to send their children to Jewish day schools.

In Milwaukee, school vouchers last year paid the tuition of 77 of the 168 students at Yeshiva Elementary School, which received $375,000 from the state of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program, which pays for needy children to attend private and parochial schools, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals.

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