Meanwhile, Back in Florida…

While the nation watched and waited as the battle over the presidency continued to unfold, two old friends met in Florida last week to try to bring a resolution to the dispute over the ballots in West Palm Beach. Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and his longtime colleague, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, spent the week after the election touring the state, attempting to bring together what they called the disenfranchised voters of Florida’s Black and Jewish communities.

The pair visited polling places, interviewed voters and organized a rally Sunday morning at Temple Israel of Greater Miami featuring Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Ralph G. Neas, president of the progressive political organization People for the American Way.

“The crisis in Florida is a testing ground for how you would handle a national or international crisis,” Jackson told the crowd. “The moral issue is not who will be president. It is the integrity and sanctity of the vote that is the heart of this debate. Once again, sons and daughters of slavery and Holocaust survivors are bound together with a shared agenda, bound by their hopes and their fears about national public policy.”According to Jacobs, poll officials recognized the problem with the ballots before Election Day ended. At 5 p.m., a notice signed by Theresa LePore (whose ballot design is at the heart of the Palm Beach County dispute) was distributed to poll workers asking them to “please remind all voters coming in that they are to vote only for one presidential candidate and that they are to punch the hole next to the arrow next to the number next to the candidate they wish to vote for.”

Jacobs said that such measures prove the ballot had serious flaws.

“This is not matter of someone just being angry with how the election turned out. These are verifiable kinds of problems,” he said. “We were shown this piece of paper that was handed out to the officials running the polling places on election day, telling people to tell voters to vote for only one president. So you knew there were complaints all day long, but it was 5 o’clock before they had the word out.”

Since many voters involved in the dispute are Haitian immigrants, African Americans or elderly Jews, the team of Jackson and Jacobs are using the opportunity to unite Florida’s Black and Jewish communities. The two activists have often made the same attempt in other cities under a variety of circumstances, including Los Angeles following the riots in 1992.

“This is an alliance that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Jews and Blacks were being lynched over the right to vote,” Jacobs said. “Jews and Blacks together formed the NAACP. Then there was the civil rights movement, with Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, two Jews and a Black man, being murdered [while promoting a massive voter registration drive]. A vote meant that much to an individual. Since then, it seems we had become cynical about elections, but look how much we care!”

Some Jewish leaders, however, feel there is no legitimate reason to bring race or religion into the voting issue in Florida. David A. Lehrer, director of Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has been in touch with staffers at the Palm Beach office, and their report contradicts any allegations of discrimination.

“We have no evidence of anti-Semitic intent in the voting confusion in Palm Beach County,” stated Lehrer. “Our folks [in Palm Beach] see no motivation to disenfranchise Jews.”

Jacobs said he felt a re-vote in West Palm Beach would be a fair solution to the dispute. He declined to say who he believed would be the winner once all the state’s votes were in, but pointed out that assuming all absentee ballots from military personnel would go to Gov. Bush was inaccurate, since many minorities serve in the U.S. military who might be more inclined to vote for a Democrat.

“The bottom line is, this is not about Gore and not about Bush,” Jacobs said. “This is about the integrity of our democracy. There are masses of people out in the street, angry but peaceful. They want their votes to count. If Mr. Bush wins, he will win fairly and squarely, by the vote.”

Facing Vouchers

Along with choosing the next leader of the free world, come Nov. 7, when Californians enter the polling booth, they will be asked to decide what many believe will be the fate of public education in this state.

If passed, Proposition 38, the school voucher initiative, will give parents $4,000 a year per child to be spent on the schools of their choice.

Within the Jewish community, Proposition 38 has brought to the fore an issue that has been debated within our community.

“I am 100 percent opposed,” says Los Angeles parent Robyn Ritter-Simon. “I do not believe in the voucher system at all. I think it will lead to the demise of public education.”

Nationwide, American Jews are discussing whether they should support the public education system or approve a voucher system. While, on the institutional level, most Jewish organizations are against vouchers, a recent independent poll conducted by Zogby International has found that 52 percent of American Jews support voucher programs.

“Every child should have the opportunity to an excellent education, not just a select few,” says Ritter-Simon, whose three children attend public school. She argues that vouchers will leave children who cannot get into private schools in public schools that have had their funding drained. Education “is not about grabbing what is mine and running with it,” says Ritter-Simon.

When her 9-year-old was entering school, Ritter-Simon says, her local public school was not up to par. Rather than abandoning the school, the Beverlywood resident spent four years working to improve the school.

“Parents are frustrated with their local schools,” admits Ritter-Simon, 39, who is a candidate for the Los Angeles City Council. “[But] if they are interested in vouchers, then they are interested in education. I want these parents to stay” to improve local schools,” she says.

Many proponents of vouchers argue that the program would allow parents, especially those within urban areas, to remove their children from failing and unsafe schools and provide them with better educations in private schools.

“The old system is a failed one,” argues Alan Stern. “It has been a proven failure for the poor and minorities.”According to Stern, who sends his children to Jewish day schools, 30 percent of public school teachers send their children to private schools.

“We have reached a crisis in public schools in urban areas,” says Stern, a food importer. “We are condemning these kids to a life of hopelessness and poverty.”

Stern points to Milwaukee and Cleveland, two cities with voucher programs, and says, “where vouchers have been tried, they have been a resounding success.”

In Milwaukee, where some 8,000 poor students use vouchers to attend private or parochial school, some 62 percent of city residents support vouchers, according to a poll commissioned by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Among local Black residents, the level of support is 74 percent; among Hispanics, 77 percent. Some 81 percent of Milwaukee low-income residents support vouchers.

According to The New York Times, the first independent evaluation of Cleveland’s voucher program, conducted by Harvard University, “found that the program was very popular with parents and raised the scores of those students tested at the end of the first year.”

Stern also says that in places where vouchers have been introduced, public schools have been forced to improve in order not to lose additional students.

Unlike Proposition 38, which gives vouchers to every parent, Stern says, “I believe in a need-based vouchers system to benefit the poor and minorities.” Stern also believes that schools should be approved, monitored and accredited in order to receive vouchers. “There needs to be guidelines,” he says.

Debbie Seidoff, who sent her children to private schools, is against school vouchers. “It bankrupts the public school system,” says Seidoff, a nonpracticing psychologist.

“My children need to live in a world where everyone is educated,” says the 47-year-old mother of two. “I don’t believe that the way to fix something is to give up on it.”

Though an advocate of public education, Seidoff did not send her children to public school. “For my children, what I was looking for was best met by a private school,” she explained.

Seidoff, who lives in Beverly Hills, adds that the private school she sent her children to resembled “a good public school.”

“Look I don’t disagree that we need to revamp the public school system,” says Seidoff, “but I don’t think the solution is to further deplete the system.”

Seidoff also says that voucher schools “do tend to ghettoize, and I don’t think that is good,” adding that her sons’ private school had students “of different color, of different ethnicity.”

Seidoff also argues that a voucher system that would allow a student to attend a parochial school would breach of the separation of church and state.

“As a taxpayer, it offends me to pay for another child’s parochial school,” says Seidoff. “A parochial education is a privilege and not a right.”

Voucher programs in both Milwaukee and Cleveland that were challenged on the basis of the Constitution’s “establishment clause” have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court, which refused to listen to arguments and let stand lower courts’ decisions on the programs’ constitutionality.

Proponents of vouchers also argue that students can receive federal financial aid to attend divinity schools at Notre Dame, Yale University or Hebrew Union College to study for the clergy or rabbinate.

In New York City, where there are numerous non-Orthodox Jewish schools, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation in New York, support vouchers. Both argue that vouchers would help parents afford the high cost of Jewish education.

Yet not all parents of local children enrolled in Jewish schools support vouchers.Deborah Kattler Kupetz admits that the cost of sending her daughters to Jewish day schools is a hardship on her and her husband.

“We live across the street from a fantastic public school,” she says. “[My husband and I] both went to public school. Yet we wanted to pursue a deeper Jewish education for our daughters.”

Still, Kattler Kupetz is staunchly against vouchers. “At this point, I am not ready to change my opposition,” says the 39-year-old mother of two. “I don’t think that it is a solution for the problems in public education.”

Kattler Kupetz volunteers at her local public school and was involved in the building of the school’s library.”I also don’t think the community, the country overall, benefits by not demanding and expecting excellent public school education,” says Kattler Kupetz. Accordingly, she is for higher wages for educators and incentives for good teachers, and against unions that protect incompetent teachers and principals from being fired or disciplined. “I am against anything,” she says, “that dilutes the expectation of an excellent public education.”