Jews watch school voucher initiatives


WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (JTA) – California and Michigan are not just high-stakes states for presidential hopefuls.

Jewish groups, teachers and education reformers are all also focusing on their school voucher ballot initiatives.

“The school choice movement has had a hard time coming together to push nationally,” said Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational resource organization, based in Washington. “Passage in either state will definitely bring the movement together.”

Vouchers would give federal money to parents who choose to send their children to a different public, private or parochial school.

The voucher issue, which opponents say violates the separation between church and state, is one of several ballot measures of interest to Jewish voters this season.

A handful of other initiatives deal with the civil rights of gays and lesbians and restrictions on abortion. According to a poll by Zogby International conducted between Dec. 14, 1999 and Feb. 7, 2000, 61 percent of Jews are pro-choice on the abortion issue.

Jews are more divided over vouchers.

Some Jews support them they see them as a possible way of making Jewish education more affordable. Others believe that vouchers unconstitutionally direct state money to religious purposes. Voucher programs have been enacted in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida and Maine.

The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the Cleveland system last year, citing the separation of church and state, but the state legislature enacted a similar program the following June.

Unlike the Cleveland and Milwaukee programs, the Maine program has not allowed voucher money to go to religious schools.

State courts have heard challenges to each of the programs, but the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule directly on a voucher case.

In Michigan and California, groups on both sides of the issue are spending millions on their campaigns, said Waters, who calls vouchers “the No. 1 state issue” this year.

In California, voters will be asked to approve a measure that would give every child a $4,000 school voucher.

The Michigan measure would offer $3,300 “opportunity scholarships” to students in school districts that graduate less than two-thirds of its students.

Both proposals claim to save their states money, as well as eventually improve conditions of their public school systems.

Opponents argue that vouchers systems will give states less incentive to put time and resources into fixing ailing public schools.

About $70 million will go into the California initiative, and another $30 million will be spent in Michigan. Much of the money comes from teachers’ unions committed to defeating the propositions, though the pro-voucher forces have their own big money backers.

These include Amway President Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, in California, and billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper in Michigan.

If either measure passes, Waters expects it will be close.

“Vouchers are never successful at the ballot box,” he said, adding that teachers’ unions are often effective at creating doubt about the propositions.

Though perhaps one of the most well-funded, the school voucher issue isn’t the only initiative that is drawing attention this election season.

Initiatives to ban same-sex marriage await voters in Nebraska and Nevada. Supported heavily by the Mormon and Catholic churches, the groups are hoping to chalk up victories in these conservative states, Waters said.

He expects the measures will likely pass, as similar ones did earlier this year in California, and in at least 30 other states since 1995.

In Oregon, gay rights activists have also been campaigning against a proposition to ban the discussion of homosexuality in public schools.

Opponents fear that beyond promoting intolerance, the law could lead to a lack of sex and AIDS-related education in the schools.

Supporters, including the Christian Coalition and several other church-related groups, said they are trying to give parents greater control over what their children learn. Of the 204 ballot measures approved for 42 states this November, only one relates to abortion.

A Colorado initiative seeks to require women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours, after receiving state-approved information about abortion alternatives, before they can undergo the procedure.

A Denver Post poll this month found 56 percent of registered voters favored the measure and 35 percent opposed it.

Two other measures to restrict abortions were narrowly defeated in the state in 1998.

Other ballot measures to watch include a vote on physician-assisted suicide in Maine, background checks at gun shows in Colorado and Oregon and bilingual education in Arizona.

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