It's baaack: the issue that won't go away
02/16/2011 - 10:58
James Besser

This one is so old it has whiskers: Orthodox groups are supporting, church-state separation groups are opposing and most other Jewish groups are ignoring the latest chapter in the perennial battle over a District of Columbia school vouchers program.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, created in 2004, was the first school voucher program involving federal dollars, which made it a particularly explosive issue for supporters and opponents alike.

Now, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are teaming up to sponsor its reauthorization after the last Congress voted to phase the program out.

Supporters say “school choice” improves performance, boosts education for inner-city children – and , not incidentally, makes it easier for parents who want to send their children to religious schools; opponents say there's no evidence of improvement, that vouchers for private schools diverts money from often-starving public school systems and represent a church-state danger.

“Vouchers, which divert public, taxpayer money to private schools, including parochial schools, are bad public policy,” said officials of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “Instead, we should be supporting public school with public funds. Evaluations of the D.C. program conducted by the Department of Education, the most recent released in June, 2010, found that there was no significant difference in the in the overall academic achievement of students in the voucher program from 'schools in need of improvement.'”

In a letter to lawmakers, the  Anti-Defamation League said “supporters of school vouchers have increasingly attempted to package [vouchers] as a response to urban poverty and failing, unsafe inner city fact, however, vouchers pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy. These programs subvert the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and threaten to undermine our system of public education.”

The ADL had one more interesting argument in an otherwise predictable debate: “We object to the attempted imposition of a vouchers program on residents of the District of Columbia – at a time when the District has no voting representation in Congress.”

Imagine: D.C. residents might object to a Congress they have no voice in telling them how to run their own schools. What chutzpah.

News flash: the Orthodox Union disagrees with these assessments.

Nathan Diament, the group's public policy director, emailed this response to my question:

“The US Supreme Court has clearly declared properly structured school voucher programs to be Constitutional. Several studies have demonstrated that the DC Scholarship Program has provided children in our nation's capital with the chance for better educational opportunities than the DC public schools could. On the basis of these facts, and our commitments to social justice and the recognition that parents are the best guides for their childrens' education we strongly support the Lieberman - Boehner legislation.”

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. And if you think the issue will be resolved once and for all this year, you're living in la-la land.

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Besser is right: we've heard these arguments before, and we'll almost certainly hear them again. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the two sides' arguments are equally valid. Whenever the issue of providing public vouchers that can be used to pay tuition at religiously affiliated private schools comes up, the ensuing discussion almost invariably confuses two separate issues. The first is whether it is good public policy to use public funds in this manner, while the second is whether it is good Jewish communal policy to advocate the use of public funds in this manner. Reasonable people can disagree on the first issue, though I think voucher proponents have the stronger case. But reasonable Jews really should not be able to disagree on the second issue, which comes down to whether allowing the use of public vouchers in religious schools, to use the familiar cliche, would be good for the Jews. Given the indisputable value of day school education for the Jewish future, that issue should be a no-brainer. Indeed, even a brief glance at the Reform movement's statement in opposition to extending the D.C. voucher program makes it clear that the Reform movement didn't even try to address the issue of Jewish communal self-interest. Its statement argues solely on the basis of general public policy. When voucher opponents bother to formulate arguments based on communal self-interest, they most often argue that allowing religious schools to be subsidized by government would enable the government to control the schools, thus undermining religious freedom. What that argument leaves out is that if government wanted to control religious schools, it already has plenty of leverage to use for that purpose: the 501(c)(3) tax deduction, local real estate and sales tax exemptions, curriculum mandates to fulfill copmpusory education requirements and enable students to pass standardized tests, subsidies for transportation and textbooks, etc. If we're not worried that government will abuse the leverage it already has, why do we assume that it would abuse the additional leverage that a voucher program would give it?