It’s baaack: the issue that won’t go away

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 schools….in 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.

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.