The debate over school vouchers is heating up around the country, and Jewish groups on both sides of the issue are jumping into the fray. But despite all the noise, most observers agree Jewish voters haven’t strayed too far from their traditional opposition to plans that provide indirect public support for private and parochial schools.
The impetus for the new push comes from Florida, where the state legislature passed a major voucher plan last week.
Under the Florida scheme, students in public schools deemed the state’s worst will be eligible for vouchers of about $4,000 a year to help pay private or parochial school tuition.
Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who made the voucher plan a key plank in his 1998 election platform, called it
“an effort to improve public schools.”
Supporters of voucher plans say the Florida decision will spur new attempts by Congress to attach voucher programs to education bills.
Orthodox Jewish groups share their enthusiasm.
“The Florida law could be a turning point in the voucher debate,” said Nathan Diament, Washington representative for the Orthodox Union. “It’s the first statewide voucher program, which will give us a chance to see how the concept plays out on a broader scale.”
He said the plan will put pressure on the public schools to get better or lose students; that, according to Diament, will undercut charges by voucher critics that these programs are designed solely to benefit private and parochial institutions.
Liberal Jewish groups disagree.
“It runs directly opposed to our belief that a quality education is the birthright of every American,” said David Harris, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress. “This plan zooms in on the very worst schools — and denies them the funds they need to improve.”
Will the new Florida law — which will face an almost immediate court challenge — change the views of a Jewish community that has generally shunned the voucher bandwagon?
“I’m not sure it will change many minds,” said Marshall Breger, a professor at the Catholic University School of Law and a top Jewish voucher advocate. “But the details of this program will make it harder for opponents to argue with a straight face that they care only about the education of inner-city children. A cynic might think they really care more about teachers’ unions.”
In fact, teachers’ unions in Florida promised to fight the new law in court.
Duke Loses, But Still Wins
Former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke may have come in third in Saturday’s special election to fill the seat of retired Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), but the news did not touch off rejoicing in the Jewish world.
Once again the controversial Duke did better than the polls or pundits predicted. Moreover, he scored a respectable tally after returning to the racial and conspiracy views that first earned him the enmity of Jewish and civil rights groups.
“What was remarkable is that his message this time was back to the good old days — very Eurocentric, very strong stuff,” said Louisiana State University political scientist T. Wayne Parent. “It stirred up some things in many people and they went out to vote for him.”
Parent pointed to Duke’s recently published autobiography, “My Awakening,” which lays the ex-Klansman’s hopes for a white European revival and voluntary homelands for minorities.
“The connection between the vote and the book is frightening,” he said.
Duke came in third in the nine-candidate race. Under Louisiana’s arcane open primary rules, if no candidate gets a majority, the two top vote-getters face each other in a run-off.
The nominal winner was David C. Treen, a former governor and congressman endorsed by the popular Livingston. State Rep. David Vitter finished second, with Duke not far behind.
But the margin was narrow. Treen received about 25 percent of the vote and Duke about 19.
“In other words, one out of five voters in the First District voted this man,” said a disgusted Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “It’s very disturbing to realize how close he came to making the runoff.”
Last week Baum blasted local Republican leaders for failing to repudiate Duke’s claim to GOP credentials. After this week’s results, he said that Republican leaders at every level have to do more to write Duke out of the party.
“It’s very disturbing that this guy has been resurrected,” he said. “And it’s very disturbing that the governor, the local party chair and the other candidates all refused to disavow him.”
Duke’s decision to abandon earlier attempts to portray himself as a centrist offers clues about his political future, said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg.
“In hard times, candidates like Duke do best with an extreme message. In good times, they have to move to the center,” he said. “The fact that Duke didn’t do that this year suggests he is preparing for hard times. It’s a reasonable strategy for him to stay on the extremes and hope the economy goes bad and that the market for his extreme positions will grow.”
Jerusalem Embassy Maneuvering
With the Israeli elections only days away, the administration is quietly trying to head off new congressional moves to force them to comply with legislation requiring the State Department to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Early this week several legislators — including Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — were negotiating over language for a congressional letter warning the administration that inaction on the embassy move could produce new legislation setting a date and removing the presidential waiver authority.
The administration insists that moving the embassy before permanent status negotiations determine the future of Jerusalem — those talks, originally scheduled to conclude this week, haven’t even started — could be a fatal blow to the peace process.
Pro-peace process groups, led by the Israel Policy Forum, are telling the legislators that any action in advance of the Israeli elections would constitute political meddling that could make a bad situation worse.
But Kyl and Schumer, in particular, are reportedly furious about the administration’s foot dragging.
According to the 1995 law, the embassy must be moved by May 31. If not, half the money used to maintain and acquire U.S. embassy buildings abroad will be frozen.
The president can waive those provisions on national security grounds, but so far President Bill Clinton has not done so, even though ground has not been broken for the new facility.
Clinton has not indicated if a waiver is forthcoming — or if he will simply ignore the law and wait for a direct challenge from Congress.
Last month, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a leading advocate of the move, offered a compromise in which the president would formally acknowledge the validity of the
1995 law and declare his intention to live up to its terms in the future, even though no action has been taken. But with no indication the administration is taking the Moynihan proposal seriously, some legislators now are looking for ways to force the president’s hand.
Capitol Hill sources said a letter could be in circulation by late this week — the first step in what might be new and controversial Jerusalem embassy legislation.
Jordan Supplemental Stuck
Jewish groups are hoping Congress will get serious about a supplementary aid package for Jordan before that country’s new leader, King Abdullah, arrives for his first visit as monarch on May 18.
But the signs are not good for a measure that keeps getting caught up in other legislative fights.
The Jordan part of the Wye River supplementary aid package — the Israel and Palestinian portions have yet to be introduced — was first coupled to an emergency appropriation for Hurricane Mitch relief.
But that measure stalled last month as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over how to pay for the spending measure.
Now, that package, including Jordan’s badly needed aid, is tied to a big spending bill funding the air war in Kosovo. Legislators were working on that this week, but there were indications it would not move quickly.
And the supplementary spending bill now includes only a portion of the $400 million in additional aid promised for Amman. The rest will have to come from the regular appropriations process, where it could face new obstacles.
Pro-Israel groups, which support the Jordan aid, hope King Abdullah’s impending visit will spur faster action.
The administration is looking forward to the king’s visit for another reason. There is growing concern among some officials here about the new leader’s apparent lack of interest in dealing with Israel and his energetic efforts to shore up relations with Syria.
Recently the king returned from a visit to Damascus that produced promises of a new closeness between the two Arab states.
Administration sources say they have been impressed with Abdullah’s poise and his ability to manage the transition from his father’s leadership — but that they are worried about his seeming lack of interest in cementing the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Bringing Abdullah back into the orbit of U.S. peacemaking efforts will be a key objective during the king’s first official visit, sources here say.
Judith Kipper, director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “it’s very much a getting-to-know-you visit. It’s important for him to establish himself here, and it’s important for the administration to demonstrate that the relationship with Jordan is intimate, that it is a real partner.”