Do Vouchers Make the Grade?


Two Jewish Democratic lawmakers who sit on the State Senate's education committee recently found themselves on opposite sides of a heated Harrisburg debate over taxpayer-funded school vouchers.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman's support for the voucher bill helped pass it out of committee, but he's got serious reservations about the measure and says he may ultimately oppose it. State Sen. Daylin Leach, on the other hand, has been a vociferous critic of the legislation, but insists that he's not completely opposed to vouchers in principle.

The two politicians — though not necessarily representative of the wider Jewish community — do reflect a subtle shift that's taken place over the last decade or so.

In the past, most Jews and Jewish groups — with the notable exception of the Orthodox community — actively opposed efforts to use public dollars to pay for tuition scholarships for children to attend private, often sectarian, schools.

The twin fears were that vouchers would drain funds from public schools and violate church-state separation by steering public money to benefit religious schools.

Now, with the Pennsylvania voucher bill, Senate Bill 1, clearing a major legislative hurdle — it passed the education committee by a vote of 8-2 on March 1 — local groups are being forced to confront the issue again and perhaps re-examine long-held positions.

Still, it so far appears that no major local, statewide or national Jewish group outside the Orthodox community has come out for or against the proposed legislation in Pennsylvania, one of the first states in the country to tackle the issue.

The Senate is expected to pass the bipartisan-sponsored bill, which was introduced by Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeffrey Piccola, of York and Dauphin counties, and Democratic State Sen. Anthony Williams, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware counties and made the issue a centerpiece of his failed gubernatorial bid last year.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has indicated he would sign the measure; the biggest stumbling block will be the House, which has a slimmer Republican majority than the Senate.

Several developments over the past decade help explain why Jewish views are shifting: the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in favor of the legality of vouchers; a growing demand for education reform amid widespread sentiment that public education is failing; and the birth of a Hebrew charter-school movement alongside traditional support for day schools, whose students could theoretically benefit from voucher programs.

"I'm not telling you that I'm in favor of the bill," said Burt Siegel, a liberal stalwart, former public-school teacher and board member of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network. "I'm telling you I'm not as firmly opposed as I once was."

When he was at the Jewish Community Relations Council for 35 years, Siegel ardently opposed vouchers, often clashing with the American Jewish Committee's Murray Friedman, one of the few local professionals who championed the idea.

The fact that JSPAN, a liberal group, is discussing the matter at all, rather than opposing the legislation outright, illustrates a shift in the thinking of other liberal Jews, said Siegel.

The proposed bill would initially offer $9,000 in annual vouchers to low-income families with students enrolled in the state's 144 poorest performing public schools. They would then be able to attend any school of their choice, public or private.

But starting two years after the bill is enacted, $9,000 would be made available to any student whose family earns up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is about $22,000.

With few Jews in the state's poorest performing schools, the initial legislation wouldn't likely benefit many day-school students, according to Howie Beigelman, who testified in favor of the measure for the Orthodox Union, where he works.

Dinniman, who represents District 19 in Chester County, said he objects to the idea of expanding the program.

He said that vouchers could be a solution for students in the worst schools, but applying them to the whole system could hurt public education. Plus, no one knows how much it would cost or how to pay for it, he cautioned.

"I can see using vouchers as part of a larger toolbox," said Dinniman. "But I am not for vouchers for vouchers' sake. I oppose vouchers statewide."

Leach,who represents District 17, which covers parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties, said that in theory, he's not opposed to vouchers. But he thinks that the pending bill would divert needed funds from public schools and lacks measures to show whether it is working. He also said that, in practice, it would unfairly benefit parochial schools.

In his view, Leach said, the bill "helps a few kids at the expense of many more it hurts."

Jewish school-choice advocates like David Pudlin have said that school choice is a civil right, and that parents who either live in a good school district or who can afford to send their children to private schools have no business denying the same opportunity to less fortunate families.

"The public education system has failed the African-American community. That persistent failure amounts to unequal protection under the law," said Pudlin, an executive committee member of the Anti-Defamation League's regional chapter.

A year ago, Pudlin successfully managed to get the local ADL's executive committee to adopt a resolution supporting vouchers — a monumental move for a major group long opposed to the concept. But the Philadelphia board wasn't able to convince the national organization to overturn its long-held position. The Philadelphia group hasn't yet met to discuss the current legislation in Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which represents federations across the state, also hasn't taken a position on the issue.

"We're monitoring it like a hawk," said PJC director Hank Butler. "We know the Jewish community is fragmented. Some support it, some oppose it. We want to determine how it can benefit, and how it can hinder, the Jewish community."

In addition to implementing vouchers, the bill would also increase funding for the state's Education Improvement Tax Credit, which allow corporations to get tax credits for supporting public and private schools.

In the past few years, advocating for more EITC funding, which enables scholarships for Jewish day schools, has been a top priority for the PJC.

When it was first passed in 2001, the EITC program was hailed as a major victory for school-choice advocates, though it came only after failed attempts to pass vouchers legislation under Gov. Tom Ridge.

The proposed legislation would increase the total amount of available tax breaks for EITC from $60 million to $100 million, which is partially why the Orthodox Union testified in favor of it during hearings, said the O.U.'s Beigelman, who has become an increasingly active player in Harrisburg.

But he said his organization's support for the voucher aspect is also about fairness for public-school students, not the hope of sending more kids to Orthodox-run day schools.

School-choice programs are "no longer out there, no longer controversial; it's no longer right-wing," he said. "It's supported by people who want to do what's best for education."

Rabbi Ira Budow, head of the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, is watching the proceedings and hoping that the state does pass a voucher program that could help families struggling to pay for day school.

Said Budow: "I hope to see in my lifetime a voucher program so that the Hebrew day-school system can continue."


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