Rabbi leading mission to award private school students vouchers

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is on a mission, and he's taking his message to the streets.

As dean of San Francisco's Hebrew Academy, Lip-ner wants to ensure a Jewish education for all Jewish children. As state chairman of Bay CARE (Bay Area Californians Advocating Reform in Education) — a multicultural coalition trying to put a school voucher initiative on the 1996 ballot — he's instrumental in making his dream a reality.

If the school voucher movement succeeds, Lipner says Jewish parents and others could apply state-funded vouchers toward tuition at private schools such as Hebrew Academy, where many children of Russian immigrants rely on scholarships to attend.

Bay CARE received approval from the state to circulate a petition supporting school vouchers earlier this month. It needs 693,230 signatures by April 1 to make the November 1996 ballot deadline.

Two years ago California voters turned down a similar initiative, Proposition 174, to amend the state's constitution. However, Lipner is optimistic the fate of Bay CARE's Education Freedom Initiative will be different.

Lipner says the latest voucher plan is more fiscally sound, and the political climate for vouchers has warmed.

"Test scores are down and crime is up in the public schools. I just read a national poll that said if given the choice, something like 57 percent of parents would send their children to private school," Lipner said.

Proposition 174 promised $2,600 to every child in the state in the form of a voucher to be applied to their public or private school of choice. The Educational Freedom Initiative calls for a $3,500 voucher to public school students.

Since public schools currently spend $5,200 per student, the $1,700 differential would remain in the public school system to maintain current operating standards. Any surplus would bankroll a fund to offer vouchers to students currently attending private school.

The plan was developed by noted Stanford University Professor of economics Milton Friedman.

"Our projections show we could actually save tax- payers money," Lipner said. "I think this is why we'll win. The public isn't interested in raising taxes."

Besides concerns that Prop. 174 didn't adequately spell out potential costs to California residents, many voters thought $2,600 was too small a voucher sum. Parents most wanting to pull their children out of public schools couldn't afford the tuition difference.

But $3,500 covers the yearly tuition of about 90 percent of the private schools in California — especially Catholic schools, Lipner said.

"This isn't about the Christian Coalition. It isn't about rich white kids. This is so kids can get out of the ghetto schools," Lipner said.

Nonetheless, the California Teachers' Association — the union that invested nearly $20 million to defeat Prop. 174 — remains opposed to vouchers.

Jan Anderson, a communications consultant for the teachers' association, said educators acknowledge the need for improvement in the public schools. However, "we just don't feel taking money from public schools and giving it to private ones is the answer," he said.

"We haven't seen anyone on the street yet, but we're committed to fighting this," Anderson added.

The Jewish Community Relations Council, which has opposed voucher initiatives in the past, has yet to take a position on the Educational Freedom Initiative.

A 1995 S.F.-based JCRC Jewish public opinion survey showed 76 percent of 900 individuals surveyed opposed government vouchers for religious day school education. And 82 percent of those surveyed voted against Prop. 174.

Despite such opposition, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC, said he is willing to consider supporting the new voucher initiative.

"Historically we've opposed previous voucher initiatives because of a number of concerns, including the possibility of excessive government entanglement with religion," Kahn said.

"When we looked at the issue with 174 there remained a strong consensus in opposition to vouchers. Yet it's clear there is more support [for vouchers] within segments of the Jewish community.

"At this point it would be premature to predict our position."

Meanwhile, proponents of the Educational Freedom Initiative are at shopping centers and grocery store parking lots trying to garner support. A company is being contracted to collect the bulk of signatures needed.

In addition, CARE steering committees are forming in cities across the state and a national 1-900 information number — (900) RUN-1996, which costs $10 per call — has been set up.

Meanwhile, Lipner is traveling around California, showing up on radio talk shows and at rallies with the CARE message.

"There will be vouchers," Lipner said. "When society is on the verge of disintegration, like ours is, it repairs itself."