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Despite concerns among many parents that efforts at "values education" could become "a smokescreen for teaching religious precepts," the public schools have a responsibility to instill basic moral principles in students, a national Jewish organization argues in a report to be released this month.

If they do not teach values, warns the Education Policy Task Force of the American Jewish Committee, educators may foster "moral confusion" in students.

In its report, the task force emphasizes that "it is not necessary to teach religion in order to teach values," such as honesty, responsibility, and loyalty.

"What we are trying to do is to help create a climate in which these emotional issues can be discussed more rationally," said Marilyn Braveman, education director for the New York-based organization.

"We say that schools have to start consciously being aware of the values they are transmitting," she continued.

The year-long study of aspects of public education, entitled "Educating for Diversity: Teaching Values, Cultures, and Languages," also examines issues, such as bilingual education, relating to the increasing heterogeneity of the school-age population.

The report calls for renewed support for "intergroup-relations" programs aimed at promoting understanding among students of different backgrounds. It argues that such programs should touch on the experiences of Jewish and other "ethnic" Americans, as well as those of members of racial minorities.

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