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Reform Jewish Movement Urges Congress to Oppose D.C. School Vouchers

Contact: Alexis Rice or Randi Levine 202-387-2800

WASHINGTON, July 8, 2003 - In a letter today, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, urged Representatives to oppose the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003 (H.R. 2556), noting, “At a time when Congress is unable to meet its promise to our nation’s most impoverished public schools, diverting millions of dollars to a voucher experiment that would leave the vast majority of students behind would be immensely irresponsible.”

The complete letter follows:

Dear Representatives:

On behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis, I strongly urge you to oppose the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003 (H.R. 2556). This bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), would institute publicly funded private school vouchers, which divert funding from public schools, do not guarantee school choice, do not improve academic achievement, jeopardize religious liberty, and detract from public education reform.

H.R. 2556 would divert approximately $75 million in public funds over five years to private, mainly religious, schools, which are free from government accountability. This proposal comes as Congress is proposing to appropriate $6.1 billion less than it authorized in the No Child Left Behind Act for Title I programs to help educate children living in poverty. At a time when Congress is unable to meet its promise to our nation’s most impoverished public schools, diverting millions of dollars to a voucher experiment that would leave the vast majority of students behind would be immensely irresponsible.

And for what? Studies demonstrate that voucher programs fail to significantly improve academic achievement for most voucher recipients. For example, the official evaluation of Milwaukee’s voucher program, by John Witte of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found no advantage in reading and math when comparing voucher students to comparable public school students. A September 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that at the end of three years, there was no difference in the academic achievement of African American students who used privately funded vouchers to attend private schools in D.C. compared to that of students who remained in public schools.

D.C. vouchers would not guarantee school choice. Capacity is severely limited at the private schools costing less than the value of the voucher available under H.R. 2556. According to 21st Century School Fund, D.C. private schools costing less than $10,000 per year enroll fewer than 5,000 elementary school students and fewer than 3,000 middle and high school students. In addition, private schools can choose which students to admit. H.R. 2556 would permit private voucher schools to exclude students based on religion and disability. The “choice” thus lies with private school administrators, not with parents.

H.R. 2556 would jeopardize our first freedom--religious liberty. Twenty-five of the 32 D.C. private schools with tuition below $5,000 are parochial. Thus, most of the students hoping to use a voucher will have to use it to attend a religious school, which can reject students based on their religious beliefs. In addition, vouchers may influence the character of religious schools. With government money come government rules, regulations, audits, monitoring, interference, and control-all of which inherently threaten religious autonomy.

As President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Rabbi Eric Yoffie said, “The public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life and how dare we deny them to others….The public schools take the poor and the handicapped, the abused and the foster children, the Christian and the Muslim, the Roman Catholic and the Jew. They do more of God’s work in a day than most institutions do in a lifetime. If our public schools are broken, then let’s fix them, but let’s not destroy them in the name of a highfalutin principle that is often nothing more than naked self-interest dressed up as caring.” (Address to the UAHC Biennial Convention, December 2001)

We urge you to focus on improving our nation’s public schools, which can benefit all children, and to oppose the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003 (H.R. 2556).

Respectfully,
/s/
Mark J. Pelavin
Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .



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