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Reform Jewish Movement Scores Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision on School Vouchers

Pelavin: [The] decision undermined the American traditions of democracy and religious liberty that have made our country unique ... and harmed the single most unifying factor in our society: public education.

WASHINGTON, JUNE 11, 1998 -- Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, denounced the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision yesterday upholding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program's expansion to parochial-school tuition as "undermining the American traditions of democracy and religious liberty that have made our country unique." "The Court upheld a program that excessively entangles government in religion ... while deterring education funding from the multitudes and harming the single most unifying factor in our society: public education," he noted.

"As Jewish Americans," Pelavin added, "we value our experiences in the public school system -- the most powerful force in integrating immigrants into American society." "We understand the frustration of those who seek to address the problem of public schools .... Yet vouchers would not fix anything. We need to improve the nation's public schools, not divert money away from them. The debate on education must continue to center on how to focus our energies and resources to improve public education to benefit all Americans and lead America into the next millennium."

The full text of Mr. Pelavin's statement follows:

Yesterday's Wisconsin Supreme Court decision undermined the American traditions of democracy and religious liberty that have made our country unique. In upholding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program's expansion to parochial-school tuition, the Court lowered the time-honored wall of separation between church and state and abandoned the judiciary's traditional interpretation of the First

Amendment's Establishment Clause as meaning that the government will not fund parochial education. The Court upheld a program that excessively entangles government in religion and only benefits a few, while deterring education funding from the multitudes and harming the single most unifying factor in our society: public education.

In its decision, the Court abandoned its responsibility to more than 85 percent of America's school children and found in favor of, at most, the 15 percent of Milwaukee's school children who the government will fund to attend a private school, if the children are lucky enough to obtain one of the select spots in the already fully-enrolled private schools and if they are able to pay the difference between the modest voucher and the tuition and other school-related costs.

As Jewish Americans, we value our experiences in the public school system -- the most powerful force in integrating immigrants into American society, instilling a sense of American identity and forging a common history and collection of experiences. We oppose attempts such as that by the Milwaukee Parental School Choice Program to disguise direct aid to parochial schools with a voucher system that would release Federal funds for the support of parochial education.

Let us be clear -- we are not defenders of the status quo in public education. We understand the frustration of those who seek to address the problem of public schools by providing a very select few with voucher money toward private school tuition. Yet vouchers would not fix anything. We need to improve the nation's public schools, not divert money away from them. The debate on education must continue to center on how to focus our energies and resources to improve public education to benefit all Americans and lead America into the next millennium.

We need, urgently, a concerned response to the challenges facing our schools: buildings needing repairs, inadequate school supplies, outdated books, and the need to provide computer technology to train the next generation of Americans. What we do not need is an ill-conceived scheme to channel public funds to private and parochial schools. That, sadly, is what the Wisconsin court upheld yesterday.

We will join in efforts to have this decision reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, and will continue to work to improve our nation's public schools and to protect the wall of separation between church and state.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in 875 congregations throughout North America.



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