Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, at the D.C. Voucher Press Conference
Contact:Alexis Rice or Rob Levy
Dirksen Senate Office Building
January 22, 2004
On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and as a D.C. resident, a parent, a lawyer, and a rabbi, I stand here today in vehement opposition to instituting school vouchers for the District of Columbia.
The problems facing public education in this nation and in its capital are real. But the D.C. school voucher program, which passed just over an hour ago as part of the 2004 omnibus appropriations bill, is not the solution. Vouchers are a distraction and a self-interested means of funneling public money into the hands of private, mostly religious, schools while ignoring the needs and wishes of the District's students and parents.
Like many national religious denominations, we are proud to run our own self-sustained full-time religious schools. But it would never occur to us to ask other people to pay through their tax dollars for our children's religious education. Jefferson was right when he said two hundred years ago that to take someone's tax money and to use it for ideas that they do not believe in is sinful and tyrannical. And it is as true today as it was then. This voucher proposal is tyrannical to the District of Columbia, to its citizens, and to those people whose tax dollars are going to pay for an education system in which they do not believe.
And I join many other religious denominations when I stand here today to affirm proudly our commitment to public schools, which serve the vast percentage of American children. Public schools are one of America's greatest achievements - a living wellspring of diversity, tolerance, and knowledge. Let's say it like it is: if the public schools of America don't make it, this nation won't make it. If the public schools of the District don't make it, this city won't make it. The proponents of this legislation have abandoned that vision of America and have betrayed the trust that the American people have put in them. We will continue to oppose to any efforts that divert resources from our public schools, distract America from addressing the urgent challenges facing public education, and which threaten religious freedom by chipping at the wall separating church and state.
Attending a private school is no guarantee of a better education. A 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report found no difference in the academic achievement of students who used privately funded vouchers to attend private schools in D.C. and those remaining in public schools.
Further, why should the residents of D.C., and only the residents of D.C., be forced to live with someone else's educational policy choices? In a recent survey, more than three-quarters of District voters opposed private school vouchers, and they are joined in that view by a majority of D.C.'s publicly elected officials. Using our nation's capital as a testing ground for an unproven voucher experiment which its citizens have outright rejected is both reprehensible and immoral.
Many of us in the Jewish community are particularly concerned about the church-state repercussions of voucher programs. In chipping away at the wall separating church and state, they are chipping away at religion's most important protections. With government money come government rules, regulations, interference, and control - exactly what America's religions don't need. And who is going to benefit from these programs? Will the government choose which religions it will and will not endorse? Will public money be spent on religions which preach intolerance, bigotry, and hatred? There is something profoundly wrong here.
We have the moral obligation to provide the best possible education for all children - of all religions, all colors, and all abilities. For the sake of our collective future, let us move beyond the illusion of school voucher schemes, with the knowledge that only by supporting and improving our public schools can we provide real opportunity for all God's children.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis .