NEWS STORY: Support growing in Jewish community for school voucher plans

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Last year, when Cleveland launched a school voucher program allowing nearly 2,000 inner-city public school students to use taxpayer dollars to pay private secular or religious school tuition, the city’s Jewish federation went on record as opposing the plan.”Many of us felt taking students and dollars out of Cleveland schools was not going to help improve the troubled Cleveland system,”said Daniel Blain, the federation’s director of community relations.

That the Cleveland Jewish Community Federation came out against a school voucher plan is no surprise, given the majority of the American Jewish community’s historical opposition to vouchers based on its support for public education and concern over weakening the wall between church and state.

But the voucher plan did not directly affect Cleveland’s Jewish community, which lives largely outside the city’s municipal boundaries. If it had, Blain said, Jewish reaction to the plan, now under constitutional review in the courts, might have been different.”We think clearly there would be support within the (Cleveland) Jewish community for people and groups that advocate vouchers,”he said.

Blain’s comment is indicative of a growing shift within the American Jewish community on the issue of school vouchers. It’s a change that could have important ramifications for the national debate over vouchers, given the past prominence Jewish groups have had among those opposed to them.

Another example of the shift is the year-long re-evaluation of the issue recently begun by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (known until recently as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council), an umbrella agency for a host of Jewish groups. The council has been a vociferous opponent of vouchers. “The organized Jewish community as a whole is recognizing that there is a voice within the community supportive of using vouchers,”said Craig Sumberg, the council’s director of public affairs.

Review of the policy does not imply a change is forthcoming, Sumberg noted. In fact, when the Anti-Defamation League, another national Jewish organization, recently reviewed its own voucher policy, it decided to reaffirm its opposition to allow tax dollars to pay private school tuitions, both secular and religious.”We decided that church-state and sound public policy considerations compelled us to retain our existing policy,”said Jess Hordes, the ADL’s government and national affairs director.

In the absence of polling data, it is unclear how much of a shift on vouchers has taken place within the 5.8 million-member Jewish community, although both supporters and opponents of vouchers agree the issue’s heightened visibility is proof enough of some increased backing.

What is clear is that in addition to general middle-class dissatisfaction with the current state of many public schools, there is also a distinctly Jewish component fueling the shift in attitude:

The general alarm within the American Jewish community over growing assimilation and the findings of a host of Jewish social scientists that sending youngsters to Jewish day schools is one of the best ways of assuring they will have strong Jewish identities.

Vouchers are seen as an effective way to help Jewish families afford the cost of private Jewish days schools, which routinely cost $6,000 or more a year.”Thirty, 40 years ago, the greatest problem for American Jews was that they were outsiders and so it was necessary for them to embrace public schools in order to become part of American life,”said David Zweibel, director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group.”Today the needs have changed. We’ve done such a great job of assimilating that we fear disappearing. It’s time to reassess what is best for the community.” Orthodox Jews, who account for the bulk of families that send their children to Jewish day schools, are in the forefront of what has become an organized effort to end community opposition to vouchers. But Judaism’s Conservative and Reform movements have also begun to embrace day schools, increasing support for vouchers among segments of the community that were historically most opposed to them.

Following the trend closely are politically conservative Jews _ Orthodox and otherwise _ who see vouchers as a”wedge issue”they can use to wean Jewish voters from their general support for Democratic Party candidates and policies.”This is the issue that divides people between what’s best for the Jewish community and liberal interests,”said Jeff Steir of the Jewish Policy Center, a Washington-based think-tank with ties to the Republican Party.”We’ve made vouchers our number one priority this year.” However, there are many within the Jewish community who argue that it would be wrong for Jews to support vouchers simply because they might allow more Jewish youngsters to attend Jewish day schools.

Speaking Monday (May 19) at a day-long symposium on the issue in Washington, Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said”the issues of church-state separation and public schools are too important to decide on the basis of narrow self-interest.”The goal of (the community’s reassesment of vouchers) must be what is best for America and will it make things better for the lowest segment of American society,”he added.”From the perspective of Jewish social justice teachings, that’s the question a Jew must ask.” Others say it is precisely their concern for social justice that compels them to support vouchers.”Let us feel the pain of black families who are failed by the public schools but cannot afford to send their children to better private schools without the help of vouchers,”said Marvin Schick, president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, an Orthodox day school with branches in Staten Island, N.Y., and Edison, N.J.”Vouchers are the socially responsible thing to do. That’s what’s best for the nation.” Still others argue that the relatively affluent Jewish community _ which contributes $1 billion annually to Jewish charities alone _ does not need vouchers to provide Jewish educations for those that want it.

Instead of altering the community’s longstanding opposition to vouchers, said Larry Rubin, Jewish Council for Public Affairs executive director,”the Jewish community needs to seriously think about spending more of its own money on Jewishly educating its young.”

MJP END RIFKIN

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