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Jewish Journal

Varied on Vouchers

by Beverly Gray

October 26, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Though many Jewish organizations, including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Bureau of Jewish Education, prefer to remain officially neutral on Proposition 38, their members often have strong emotions pro and con.

Dr. Ron Reynolds, director of school services for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, also serves in a volunteer capacity as the president of the California Association of Private School Organizations. Reynolds strongly believes that private schools - religious and secular - play a valuable role in the education of California's children. Citing a 1999 report from the U.S. Census Bureau to the effect that fewer than one-third of all private school students come from families with incomes of $75,000 and above, he decries the common image of private schools as elitist and anti-democratic.

Reynolds is himself a product of public schools in the San Fernando Valley. Still, he is attracted to the concept of vouchers as a way of improving an educational climate he sees as badly in need of help. "I want the public school system to succeed," Reynolds says. "As members of the public, we all have a strong vested interested in seeing the system succeed. I just don't know how to do it."

For him, vouchers have the potential to introduce healthy competition into the status quo and can have the advantage of freeing those children who are currently locked into failing neighborhood schools to find something better in the private sector.

Which does not necessarily mean he supports Proposition 38. Reynolds is bothered by the fact that the Draper Initiative provides for no means testing: children of all economic strata (including the affluent, who are capable of attending costly private schools without government help) would be equally eligible to receive $4,000 from the state. To him, the current proposition moves "too far, too fast." His own preference would be for a smaller-scale experimental use of vouchers as a way of seeing whether they really improve children's academic performance. (In this, his position seems not far from that put forth by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.) In the long run, Reynolds predicts that the Jewish community as a whole will come around to endorsing vouchers, as he sees inner-city parents doing now. He attributes the fact that most liberal politicians reject vouchers as an indication of the clout wielded by teachers unions and feels that many public officials are out of touch with the beliefs of their constituents on this volatile issue.

There is a vastly different viewpoint at the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Attorney Douglas Mirell, the group's president, is suspicious that the measure's author, Tim Draper, is a dot-com millionaire who has spoken out in favor of privatizing all educational services. The Draper Initiative, says Mirell, proposes no standards by which private schools can be judged, nor any procedures for assuring their accountability to the general public. While one basic argument for vouchers is that they will help children to do better on standardized tests, there is no requirement that schools receiving voucher money improve their students' academic performance in any way.

Mirell also notes that "every dollar that comes into the voucher program will be subtracted from California's general fund." Presumably, this could mean substantially less money in the state coffers for such important items as parks, health care and public safety.

For Californians who do opt to put their youngsters' voucher money toward private school tuition, Mirell sees a Catch-22. After all, "What the heck does $4,000 buy?" As the father of children who attend Jewish day schools, he knows that a quality private education easily approaches and often surpasses $10,000 per year. Those inner-city families whom Proposition 38 is theoretically designed to help can hardly afford to dig into their own pockets to make up the difference between the voucher amount and a good private school's fees. Mirell's fear is that the passage of Proposition 38 could spark the rise of diploma mills that, in exchange for a voucher coupon, would provide only the poorest excuse for an education, free of any sort of government oversight.

Opposition to Proposition 38 is presented at www.novouchers2000.com. Support for the Draper Initiative can be found at www.schoolvouchers2000.org. The Anti-Defamation League, one major Jewish organization that strongly opposes vouchers on philosophical grounds, discusses its position on its general Web site, www.adl.org

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