Jews upset by Bushs voucher plan, 2004 budget cuts

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration may be consumed with international affairs, but Jewish groups examining the White House's proposed budget are more concerned with the president's domestic priorities.

Spending is higher in the White House budget for fiscal year 2004 released Monday, but most of that money is going to defense and homeland security, while many of the Jewish community's domestic priorities either have not increased or have been trimmed.

In addition, the budget includes $75 million for the Choice Incentive Fund, which would push states to create school voucher programs and would create a test program in Washington. Many Jewish organizations oppose vouchers, which provide government funds that students can use to attend parochial or private schools.

Also included in the $2.23 trillion budget for fiscal year 2004 are:

*$480 million in economic aid for Israel and $2.16 billion in military aid. Economic aid to Israel is being cut by $120 million each year and should be phased out entirely by 2009, while military aid is rising by $60 million a year.

*$575 million in economic aid and $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt, as well as $250 million in economic aid and $206 million in military aid for Jordan.

*$75 million for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would be doled out through the United States Agency for International Development. The United States will continue to support the U.N. Refugee and Works Administration, which assists Palestinian refugees.

*$50 million for the United Israel Appeal, which is used primarily to resettle Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. The figure represents a cut of $10 million.

In any case, the House of Representatives and the Senate will have to pass their own plans, which will need to be reconciled with Bush's proposal. That means that the final spending numbers are far from certain — and that it could be months before a final budget is approved.

In fact, the budget for fiscal year 2003 has yet to clear Congress. That has left government agencies running on prorated portions of their 2002 budgets.

The voucher provisions of the 2004 budget are expected to be among the more controversial portions for Jewish groups, who have been concerned about federal money going to religious schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that vouchers don't violate the constitutional separation of church and state. But many Jewish groups continue to oppose them on policy grounds, arguing that vouchers divert attention and funds from the public schools.

"Our arguments against vouchers remain," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. "It's still bad public policy, and it's bad for religion."

In addition to the program in Washington, the Education Department budget includes $226 million in tax credits for parents transferring their children out of failing public schools — which Jewish groups say essentially is a voucher — and $220 million in grants for charter schools, a $20 million increase from last year's budget proposal.

In foreign aid, the administration has requested a $1.3 billion increase for Millennium Challenge Accounts, an initiative the president unveiled last year.

The challenge accounts, which would supplement existing aid programs, aim to reward countries that are making progress in protecting political and human rights, improving citizens' quality of life — and using aid money efficiently.

"It's trying to find a way to be the most effective with the money," said Liz Schrayer, campaign manager of the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, which includes the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "People recognize that there aren't enough funds to do the work that is required in a post-Sept. 11 world."

No Middle Eastern country is expected to qualify for the aid immediately, but Jewish leaders say the initiative may make it easier for the total foreign aid bill — which includes money for Israel — to pass Congress each year.

By diversifying foreign aid recipients and giving additional money to countries that can show they are using it effectively, Israel's aid package won't have to be defended as vigorously, some supporters of Israel say.