DC Vouchers: Obama straddles, Jewish groups not thrilled

Monday, May 11th, 2009

If you thought the issue of school vouchers for parents whose kids attend private and parochial schools would fade away now that the Democrats control both the White House and Congress, guess again.

Last week President Obama announced a proposal that would allow a controversial Washington, DC voucher program that has divided Jewish groups to keep its funding for now but not provide money for new students.

The administration has tried to walk a careful line on church-state questions, accepting some of the shift toward more government support for religious schools and institutions but taking a second look at many Bush era policies; the DC vouchers straddle seems to be part of that process.

Predictably, that didn’t really please either side in the contentious debate over parochial school funding.

Leaders of the Orthodox Union said that while they were happy about Obama’s “extension of the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,” they were bummed that “despite this preservation… limiting it to the students currently enrolled in the program ultimately does not serve the goal of providing an equal education for all. For while the students currently participating the program will have increased opportunity until their graduation from high school, the next generation of Washington, DC school children will be denied the opportunity that those before them fought so hard to obtain.”

For voucher advocates like the OU, the Obama administration decision is  better than what Congress approved in March – which is a complete cutoff in funding after the next school year – but not much.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a strong opponent of voucher programs, was unhappy that the administration wants continued funding for those already in the DC program.

“Although we share the President’s determination to improve the education and well-being of our nation’s youth, we are disappointed by the extension of funding for the Washington D.C. private school vouchers pilot program,” said RAC associate director Mark Pelavin. “Vouchers detract from efforts to address underlying failures in our public school system and raise significant constitutional concerns about the spending of public tax dollars on sectarian education.”

The voucher issue is a politically sensitive one for  President Obama because many African American pastors, important elements in his political base,  support vouchers, while most liberal groups, another part of that base, are strong opponents.

What’s unclear at this point: will the current crisis in Jewish day school funding (see Gary Rosenblatt’s column in the current Jewish Week) alter the politics of the voucher battle in the Jewish community?

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.