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Education Bill Gaining Approval, While Ignoring Tuition Vouchers

With the overhaul of the federal education bill apparently complete, most Jewish groups are happy with what’s missing — school vouchers.

Once a staple of the Bush administration’s prescription for curing the public schools’ woes, vouchers have been ignored by Congress. Yet they remain a controversial issue for the American Jewish community.

Jewish groups are unable to reach unanimity on the issue. Most organizations say vouchers, which provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools, violate church-state separation and drain money away from the public school system.

However, Orthodox Jews, who typically send their children to Jewish day schools, support publicly financed tuition vouchers.

At the recent biennial conference of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president, spoke out strongly against school vouchers.

Yoffie said U.S. Jews remain supportive of the public school system, and noted that many Jews cannot afford day school tuition, which can run to $15,000 per year.

“But we must not ask the government to do for our community what our community is unwilling to do for itself,” Yoffie said in his speech.

Lawmakers dropped the issue of vouchers early in the congressional negotiations, much to the dismay of Orthodox groups.

The Orthodox Union says vouchers are made available on the basis of neutral criteria to the parents of all schoolchildren, and individual families would decide whether to spend the public dollars on parochial schools.

The Supreme Court is poised to rule on the constitutionality of school vouchers some time this spring.

Overall, Jewish groups are pleased with the education bill, which passed the House on Dec. 12 by a vote of 381-41. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week.

Still, another church-state issue in the bill is raising concern.

The bill empowers the Department of Education to issue a “guidance” on prayer in public schools. Guidelines on religion in public schools have been issued before, but the new guidance will have the force of law.

For the first time, the department could deny funds to any local school district that blocks a student’s right to pray in school.

It is unclear what the guidance will say, when it will be issued and how closely it will match court rulings.

Some Jewish groups are unhappy with the change, saying it gives too much power to the Department of Education to decide what is constitutional, and that the threat of losing federal funds is coercive and inappropriate.

“This provision adds a layer of confusion and uncertainty to an already complicated area of the law,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

Lieberman and others called the specter of a federal guidance “troubling,” and plan to track the issue. They also will try to have input in developing the guidance.

Another part of the education bill, which was tied up for months in negotiations between the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, authorizes education against hate crimes. The bill only authorizes the programs — maintaining the department’s ability to do such programming — but does not determine actual funding amounts.

The bill also continues to mandate “equitable participation” in supplementary educational programs, such as teacher development and training programs, in nonpublic schools.

Another amendment that some Jewish groups find disconcerting says schools cannot deny equal access to the Boy Scouts, a group that excludes homosexuals as scout leaders. Most Jewish groups condemned a Supreme Court ruling in June 2000 that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude a gay scoutmaster.

School districts would find themselves threatened with the loss of federal funds if they are found to be denying the Boy Scouts an opportunity to meet.

“There are a number of specific amendments inserted in the bill to make political points,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The overhaul of the education bill, also named the “Leave No Child Behind Act,” is a major victory for President Bush, who made it one of his priorities and made education reform a top issue during his presidential campaign.

The bill, which will cost about $172 billion over 10 years, will institute annual testing in third through eighth grades to measure students’ progress in reading and math. Also, children in schools with consistently poor performance could be eligible for private tutoring and other alternatives at public expense.

If the Senate approves the legislation, as expected, Bush could sign it into law as early as this week.

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