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Congress Approves School Voucher Bill

Opponents of school vouchers usually have Senator Ted Kennedy in their corner, but the groups found themselves at odds with the Massachusetts Democrat over a new hurricane relief program that will provide funding to private schools.

With Kennedy’s sponsorship, Congress approved legislation last week that will provide $1.6 billion in funding to schools and colleges affected by Hurricane Katrina. The most contentious provision opens the way for both public and private schools to receive $6,000 in federal funding for each student they took in from areas ravaged by the storm.

When the legislation was first put forward by the Bush administration in September, Kennedy and other liberals criticized the proposal as a vouchers program that would open the way to future federal funding of religious schools. Opponents of vouchers programs said that such initiatives are unconstitutional on church-state grounds.

In recent months, however, Kennedy changed his position and became a sponsor and leading supporter of the legislation, saying private and public schools were equally hurt by the disaster. The legislation was tacked onto the defense appropriations bill, along with $29 million in other hurricane-related aid.

The final legislation actually opens up more federal funding for private schools than the initial proposal. In addition to the $645 million for tuition assistance, $750 million will be available to any school in the hurricane-hit areas that tries to reopen. In the administration’s initial proposal, this funding was available only to public schools.

Also, unlike earlier drafts, the final legislation has no restrictions on the money going to pay for “religious instruction, indoctrination, or worship.”

While Kennedy changed his position, a broad coalition of civil liberties groups — including an array of Jewish organizations — maintained their opposition, led by the National Education Association.

One opponent, the Anti-Defamation League, called the legislation the “first national voucher program.”

To allay such concerns, congressional leaders inserted language emphasizing that the legislation is an emergency provision that is only available for one year. But such wording did not pacify opponents.

“You should be concerned about the precedent setting nature of this,” said Michael Lieberman, the ADL’s Washington representative. “There’s no doubt that this fits all the paradigmatic attributes of a voucher program.”

The only federal voucher program ever passed was one for the District of Columbia. That program was for $28 million and was barely approved by Congress.

Unlike many other Jewish organizations, Orthodox groups supported the legislation. The Washington representative of the Orthodox Union, Nathan Diament, said that supporting the legislation was the primary initiative of his office this past fall.

It is estimated that about 350 of the 370,000 students displaced by the hurricane were enrolled in Jewish schools. Several Jewish schools throughout the country have taken in displaced students, making them eligible for the new funding.

Diament said that he was happy with the legislation but disappointed with the continued opposition to the bill.

“To suggest that kids who were displaced and taken in by a school should not get assistance is not only disappointing, it’s offensive,” Diament said. “It makes you wonder whether the opposition is really a policy debate or whether they have a deep-seated animus to parochial schools.”

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