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Jewish Groups Choose Sides on Vouchers

WASHINGTON — With Congress battling over a bill that would strongly influence the future of the school vouchers debate nationwide, Jewish groups on both sides are jumping into the fray.

Orthodox Jewish organizations are rallying behind a measure passed by the House of Representatives last week that would bring vouchers to the District of Columbia. On the other side, Jewish civil-right groups are joining forces with teachers’ unions and other liberal groups in a last-ditch effort to sink the bill in the Senate.

While the major legal hurdle to vouchers was overcome last year, when the Supreme Court approved them in a 5-4 decision, the proposed bill would mark the first time that federal dollars were used to fund a voucher program. Advocates on both sides say that the outcome of the current legislative fight could set the tone on vouchers nationwide.

This would “open the flood gates,” said Michael Lieberman, counsel of the Anti-Defamation League.

The possibility of such a significant political victory is energizing the Orthodox Union and the Agudath Israel of America, as well as other groups that support vouchers. The O.U. called on the Senate to enact the measure “and deliver new hope and empowerment to schoolchildren and their parents in the nation’s capital,” pointing out that school vouchers “are in keeping with the fundamental Jewish teaching that parents are primarily responsible for the education of their children.” Abba Cohen, Washington counsel of the Aguda, the leading voice of ultra-Orthodox Jews, issued a statement expressing hope “that the D.C. plan will come to represent an important step toward true school choice for all American families.”

Several Jewish organizations are opposing the bill, including the ADL, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Opponents are pinning their hopes on several wavering Republican senators who may decide to vote against the bill because of church-state separation issues.

The proposed school-voucher program would provide a total of $10 million in scholarships of up to $7,500 per student to about 1,300 out of Washington’s 68,000 students, covering tuition and related costs at any private school in the nation‘s capital. These scholarships would go to children whose parents earn less than 185% of the poverty line ($34,040 for a family of four). Priority would be given to students in Washington’s worst schools.

Washington’s school district is the only one funded by the federal government and spends more per student than any other district in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, during the 2000-2001 school year, Washington schools spent $10,852 per student — nearly 50% above the national average. Still, the district’s students score almost the lowest in the nation. Washington finished behind every single state in a recent test of basic skills involving students in fourth and eight grades.

Washington officials have tried various solutions to this problem, to no avail. That prompted Mayor Anthony Williams, a liberal Democrat, to back a five-year pilot voucher program. Last week, after the House approved the bill, Williams told reporters: “Democrats can still have concerns about vouchers as a national issue, but give us a break in terms of what will work here in the District. We are not trying to make national policy here; we just want to help our children.”

School-voucher opponents argue that by default most students receiving vouchers will end up enrolling in Catholic schools. Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said last week that the school-voucher measure in effect imposes “a religious tax on all Americans.” He added that “the public should not be forced to fund religious schools that are not accountable to the taxpayers.”

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