A Vote For Vouchers
Last week’s Wisconsin Supreme Court decision upholding the use of government vouchers at parochial schools won’t change many opinions in a deeply divided Jewish community, but it may significantly change the political calculus for the issue.
And the Wisconsin decision was written in a way that may work to the advantage of voucher supporters when the case goes before the Supreme Court. So far, opponents of the plan have not appealed, although they are expected to do so soon.
“The opinion lays out a path which the Supreme Court will be comfortable following,” said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America and a leading voucher advocate. “The opinion was broad, and based on the factual finding that the state is neutral, that
it’s the parents who make decisions about where to send their children to school, not the government. The court is likely to be sympathetic to that.”
Breger also said Jewish opposition to voucher programs is “eroding,” contention challenged by other Jewish activists.
“Voucher opponents have been vigorous and aggressive, and this decision will only increase that commitment,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“We remain very concerned because of the constitutional implications of vouchers, but also because this represents bad school policy. These are programs that will inevitably have a negative impact on the public schools, and on the 90 percent of kids who attend them.”
Last week’s 4-2 vote involved a pioneering voucher program serving about 1,500 Milwaukee students. Until the decision, the program was limited to non-religious schools. But the justices ruled that since parents make the choice of where to send their children, the program does not “have the primary effect of advancing religion.”
That will set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court’s first examination of the voucher issue, probably next year.
But even before that, the ruling may be a spur to other cities and states considering voucher programs, as well as congressional efforts to pass federal voucher legislation.
“It is a giant step forward for the school choice movement,” said Abba Cohen, Washington representative for Agudath Israel of America, which supports vouchers. “It will raise the comfort level of many legislators who are interested, but concerned about the constitutional implications. This decision will remove some obstacles and encourage Congress to move ahead.”
GOP leaders are still unlikely to muster enough votes to override President Clinton’s recent veto of a bill authorizing a voucher program in the District of Columbia. But last week’s vote may encourage legislators to introduce other voucher programs before the end of the congressional session, Cohen said.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America also hailed the vote, while the American Jewish Congress said it was “a blow to public school systems everywhere.”
Little Talk On Peace Talks
Newspapers in Israel offer a daily barrage of rumors of impending Israeli-Palestinian peace deals, or of new U.S.-Israel frictions, but the Washington scene in recent weeks has been notable for a lack of talk about the moribund talks.
Recent expectations of a big U.S. squeeze on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have given way to an eerie silence.
Leakers aren’t leaking, spokesmen aren’t speaking and reporters aren’t asking many questions.
State Department briefings in recent weeks, focusing on breaking issues such as Serbian ethnic cleansing, have been notable for their minimal Mideast content.
The U.S. Mideast peace team continues working with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but at the White House and in the higher echelons of the State Department, the focus has clearly turned to other parts of the world.
“We have a war in Kosovo, a trip to China, financial collapse in Japan, and nobody’s paying much attention to the Middle East any more,” said a leading Jewish analyst here. “The administration is going through the motions and the Netanyahu government keeps leaking stories to indicate that there’s something happening, but it is all noise. In fact, we’re already seeing the U.S. disengagement that [Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright warned about months ago. ”
Several State Department officials have hinted that the administration is now giving the Netanyahu government until mid-July to approve the next West Bank redeployment, but the number of analysts who take that seriously seems to be diminishing.
On Monday, State Department spokesman James Rubin felt compelled to debunk some of the rumors in the Israeli press suggesting an agreement is imminent.
“We have not reached an agreement, and any reports suggesting that we’ve reached an agreement are factually, substantively and procedurally incorrect,” he said.
Stern Words On Palestinian Economy
Washington is moving ahead with efforts to boost the faltering Palestinian economy despite the ongoing impasse in the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks — or perhaps in recognition of it.
This week, Stuart Eizenstat, the under secretary of state for economic affairs, was in the region and urged Israel to do more to improve the economic lot of the Palestinians.
The Israeli economy has benefited from the peace process, he told an audience at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but the Palestinian economy has gone in the opposite direction. “Simply put, Palestinians are earning less, spending less, and growing even poorer. This situation must be reversed, and quickly.”
He urged Israel to do more to ease the free flow of labor and goods from the areas now under Palestinian control, but he emphasized that “the dire state of the Palestinian economy is not by any means the sole responsibility of Israel.”
He acknowledged Israel’s continuing security needs, but said that its security is also threatened by a Palestinian population that is sinking deeper into poverty and despair.
“We are at risk of diminishing the constituency for peace, not only among the public at large, but increasingly among the Palestinian business people who expected the peace process to deliver economic stability, normalcy and improved relations with their Israeli partners and customers,” he said.
But there may be another factor at work in the new administration push on the Palestinian economy.
“There’s a kind of readjustment taking place in which the administration is thinking about what happens if the current peace process does come to an end without an agreement,” said an analyst for a pro-Israel group here. “The focus may be shifting to finding ways to keep the lid from blowing if that happens.”