Behind the Headlines: Jews Split over Bush Moves on Education, Overseas Abortion

If the election had turned out differently, it might have been Vice President Joseph Lieberman unveiling an education plan in the East Room ceremony.

Instead, President Bush offered his education blueprint – which he hopes can be implemented for the next school year – to Congress, while Sen. Lieberman (D- Conn.) offered a competing package at a news conference at the Capitol.

Introducing his education package was one of Bush’s first actions in office as he launched his agenda this week, making important policy moves on education and abortion that concern many in the Jewish community.

On the first work day of his presidency, Bush on Monday barred federal funds from being given to international family planning groups that offer abortion services and counseling.

On Tuesday, he introduced an education plan that touts school accountability, more local school control, annual student testing and school vouchers.

The Jewish community is closely watching Bush’s initial moves to see how forcefully he will move to translate contentious campaign issues into policy.

The use of vouchers, which provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools, remains a divisive issue among Jewish organizations. Many groups oppose vouchers on church-state separation grounds, but others believe parents could use the money to send their children to Jewish schools.

Lieberman came under fire during the presidential campaign for his support of experimental voucher programs. On Tuesday, Lieberman, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and other moderate Democrats unveiled legislation that would streamline federal school programs and target resources to disadvantaged students, but would not include vouchers.

“There is a lot of room for collaboration” with Bush, Lieberman said, while admitting there also were differences between the two programs, and not just on vouchers.

Nevertheless, Lieberman said the priorities in his bill – which calls for an additional $35 billion for education over the next five years and which promotes charter schools and public school choice – overlap significantly with Bush’s.

Both sides are anxious to find common ground on education reform, according to Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

Bush’s limited plan, which would allow vouchers for students in schools that fail to meet standards three years in a row, suggests that Bush’s motivation is in the right place, Foltin said, but added that any voucher system would not fix the problems of failing schools.

Voucher initiatives were defeated in Michigan and California in November, and a federal appeals court in December ruled that a voucher plan in Cleveland was unconstitutional.

There is concern that the issue of vouchers could lead to legislative gridlock in the narrowly divided House of Representatives and the evenly split Senate.

It is hard to find potential points of compromise on vouchers, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Many in the Jewish community will continue to oppose vouchers, even if more parents are sending their children to Jewish schools, Saperstein said.

Opponents say vouchers will siphon money away from the public schools, but supporters say there is a way to hold schools accountable for progress.

“The only way accountability works is to have consequences,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Diament said he hopes Bush will stick to the voucher plan, and believes states should be allowed to set up voucher demonstration programs.

Bush’s plan provides the possibility of meaningful school reform, and vouchers deserve a try, said Abba Cohen, director and counsel of the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America.

The fervently Orthodox group would prefer a more far-reaching voucher plan. But even a limited voucher plan at the federal level has symbolic value, and it could filter down to state legislatures that can pass broad forms of school choice, Cohen said.

Aware that his voucher plan does not sit well with Democrats and some moderate Republicans, Bush met with key members of both parties to push his ideas before introducing his plan.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking minority member on the Senate’s Education Committee, said there are “overwhelming areas of agreement” between the Bush plan and the Democratic one.

The Bush team has been trying to put the voucher concept in the most acceptable light, presenting it as just one part of a larger approach to school choice.

The administration also is waging a campaign of semantics, using the term “parental choice” instead of the more politically volatile “vouchers.”

“We want to be concerned about the results, not about the structures and not about the systems,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said.

While consensus might be found on education reform, Bush’s order on Monday stopping federal funding of programs that offer abortion services abroad was much more polarizing.

Pro-choice Jewish groups condemned the move, saying it will harm women’s health programs and infringe on free speech.

The American Jewish Congress said it hopes the “distressing” act does not indicate that Bush will retreat from the policy of protecting reproductive choice.

The AJCongress denounced the move, saying existing regulations on U.S. funding are strict and the benefits of family planning programs clear.

The action is “particularly ironic since funding of international family planning reduces abortions,” Lois Waldman, director of the AJCongress’ Commission for Women’s Equality, said in a statement.

Current law bans the use of U.S. funds for abortions in foreign countries. In 1984, in what is often referred to as the “Mexico City policy,” President Reagan further banned U.S. aid to international groups that use their own money to support abortion.

President Clinton suspended Reagan’s measure – known to pro-choice groups as the “global gag rule” – in one of his first acts in office. Bush’s order reverses Clinton’s move.

The National Council of Jewish Women said the order was “a clear infringement of free speech” because it allows the U.S. government to tell international organizations how to use their private funds, dictating what these organizations say in their communities.

“Such restrictions will surely have dire consequences for the continued success of these critically needed health programs, which save the lives of thousands of women and children every year,” NCJW President Jan Schneiderman said in a statement.

Cohen of Agudath Israel said the Orthodox group opposes abortion and identifies with the pro-life movement, but does not comment on abortion-related issues, such as waiting periods or funding. The Orthodox Union had no comment on the order.

Pro-choice groups also have criticized some of Bush’s appointments – such as Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tommy Thompson – because of their anti-abortion stances.

NCJW formally opposes the Ashcroft nomination.

On Monday, thousands of anti-abortion protesters rallied in Washington to mark the 28th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion.

“We share a great goal: to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law,” Bush said in a statement read to the rally.

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