Hurricane Relief Plan Stirs School Vouchers Debate

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.

The Bush administration’s plan to pay for the private school education of Hurricane Katrina evacuees has triggered the first major debate over church-state separation in the relief effort.

During a tour of Houston last week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings proposed that the government give $488 million to private schools that have taken in evacuated children — part of a $2.6 billion proposal to help with the education of an estimated 372,000 students who were displaced.

Under the initial proposal, the initiative would work much like a federal voucher program, with government grants going to religious and nonreligious private schools that take in children. The bitterly divided response to the plan broke down along the same lines as past church-state debates, with Orthodox Jewish organizations lining up in support of the proposal and most other Jewish groups reiterating their opposition to vouchers.

The proposals on the table are more than just political fodder within the Jewish world. Private Jewish day schools across the country have taken in evacuated children free of charge, and could be eligible for the federal funding. Even at these schools, the response to the proposal was divided along predictable denominational lines.

In Houston, The Emery/Weiner School — a pluralistic Jewish institute — has taken in 39 students, the most of any Jewish school in the nation. The school’s headmaster, Stuart Dow, said, “It’s not that we couldn’t use the funds, but to be honest, it’s a largesse that I don’t think meets the scrutiny of how the government should dole out federal funds.”

A different message was emerging from the Margolin Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Memphis, Tenn., that has taken in 21 new students. The president of the school’s board was set to visit Washington on Thursday to testify in favor of the proposal in front of a Senate hearing.

The exact contours of the federal funding plan are not yet clear. The initial proposal from the Education Department stated that public and private schools would receive up to $7,500 per year for every student taken in. Spellings defended the large allocations for private schools by pointing to the fact that almost 25% of New Orleans’s students went to private schools, in contrast with the 11% who attend private schools nationally. Beyond the raw numbers, the Education Department was working on the specifics of the legislation at press time.

The larger status of school vouchers is still very much in flux. The Supreme Court, in 2002, approved for the first time a voucher program that sends public money to private and religious schools, saying that a program in Cleveland did not violate the First Amendment. Currently there is public tuition support for private schools in six states and the District of Columbia. The largest program, a state-funded one in Florida, has lost in court three times and is on appeal right now.

The current relief proposal, though, would dwarf previous programs, injecting 17 times as much federal money into private school tuition as has been spent to date.

Once submitted to Congress, the administration’s proposal is likely to compete with a separate educational relief bill that was proposed by senators Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican. They have put forward an education relief bill that would give $2.5 billion to public schools in the area, as opposed to the combined $1.9 billion that Spelling is proposing to be shared by both public and private schools. Kennedy criticized the administration proposal in a statement, saying it was not the time “for a partisan debate on vouchers.”

In turn, the Orthodox Union issued a statement accusing Kennedy of calling for “discrimination” against religious families who were forced to evacuate their homes.

But Kennedy appears to have many Jewish organizations behind him. Several major Jewish groups that have been among the most outspoken opponents of vouchers said they are opposed to the current proposal for the same reason they’ve opposed past voucher plans.

“Clearly we have an obligation to help the evacuees,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “But that doesn’t change the fact that things that were bad policy are bad policy today. Government support for private and parochial school remains bad policy.”

Orthodox supporters of vouchers said this proposal should be treated as emergency relief and not as a voucher program. Rabbi David Zweibel, executive vice president of government and public affairs at the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said, “Even those who might in principle oppose vouchers ought not be so doctrinaire in light of the urgent humanitarian needs that face these families right now. This is unseemly, to say the least.”

A spokesman for the Education Department, Chad Colby, said that if the funding for private schools goes through, “it’s a one-year plan. It’s just a one-year plan.”

But that has not placated the opponents. Marc Stern, the top lawyer at the American Jewish Congress, said, “If we could all agree that this is an emergency and not setting any precedent for the future, that would be okay — but that won’t happen.”

During the past week, critics of the Bush administration have accused the White House of using the hurricane to advance initiatives that have not mustered support in the past. Last week, Bush took heat after suspending minority hiring rules for government contractors in the storm-hit areas. He also suspended union-wage provisions for government contracts.

In the education proposal, the administration indicated the money only would go to schools that had taken in at least 10 students. That would include at least six Jewish day schools in four cities, according to statistics from the Jewish Education Service of North America. The Bureau of Jewish Education in Houston said that in that city alone, close to 100 students have been enrolled in day schools.

Before the hurricane, the New Orleans Jewish Day School only enrolled 72 students, so it’s clear that many other students chose Jewish day schools after being evacuated. All five Jewish day schools in Houston have added some new staff. At the Emery/Weiner School, headmaster Dow said that extra Hebrew teachers had to be added. But Dow also said that he is not sure schools like his are in the most need of help right now. He said that many parents would be able to pay tuition. In addition, the Avi Chai Foundation is offering to pay day schools $3,000 for the yearly tuition of each evacuated student.

“We have many parents who could afford to be paying this,” Dow said. “The question is whether these families should be subsidized by the government. The climate is such that no one wants to go through that level of analysis.”

At Memphis’s Margolin Hebrew Academy, the president, Michael Stein, said his Orthodox school would find the resources to educate the children no matter what happens with the legislation.

“I believe that with or without the funding, the job would get done,” Stein said.

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