A question mark hangs over the opening of New York City's planned Arabic-language school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
That the topic remains open is surprising. Other than objections from a few of us — The New York Sun's editorialists, its columnist Alicia Colon, the investigative team of Beila Rabinowitz and William Mayer, and education specialist Diane Ravitch, as well as my own article and blog on the subject — the school enjoys unflagging support. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helps pay for it. The mayor's office, the Anti-Defamation League, and the United Federation of Teachers endorse it. Newspaper coverage from the New York Times, New York Daily News, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and International Herald Tribune attempts to discredit its opponents, sometimes stooping to distort our arguments.
Even the parents at two locations who protested the placement of KGIA in their children's buildings spoke not of the school's personnel and curriculum but of such issues as insufficient schoolroom space and the mixing of older students with younger ones. As one of them told the Daily News: "Our issue is not with the substance of the school. It's with the space."
Such parental objections led the Department of Education to abandon its push to place KGIA in a Brooklyn primary school. Instead, it found a location for the next two years, and a department spokesman stated with finality: "This is not a tentative decision. The school will open at this site in September."
That said, the school's prospects appear less than certain. With the 2006–07 academic year nearly over, fifth-graders generally know which school they will attend next year, and though some families have expressed interest in KGIA, not a single student has yet enrolled there.
That the Department of Education has apparently instructed school administrators not to talk to the press about KGIA bespeaks a siege mentality.
And that all 12 members of KGIA's advisory board are connected to religious institutions validates concerns about its being, in fact, a religiously oriented school.
The advisory board's three Muslim members all have Islamist connections unsuited to a taxpayer-funded school. The imam of New York University, Khalid Latif, warned the NYU president that should a student event displaying the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad take place, "the potential of what might happen after they are shown" would be "not taken lightly." Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid belongs to the "National Committee to Free Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin" (Amin being a convicted cop-killer). Shamsi (or Syamsi) Ali runs a madrassa in Queens where an almost exclusive focus on memorization of the Koran might be breaking state educational laws.
Parents will not be assuaged by resolving problems about school crowding and the mixing of different-age students as, whatever they say publicly, the evidence suggests that their real objection to KGIA involves the school's inculcating pan-Arabism and radical Islam.
After all, why did New York parents accept without demurral schools teaching Chinese, Creole, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish, while the parents of two schools have rejected the KGIA?
The too-crowded argument is hollow, as the second school building has an overcapacity of about 680 seats, far more than what the new school expects — 60 students during its first year and double that many the second.
When school administrators promise heightened security security to the school building that houses the KGIA, they implicitly suggest that this is a parental concern related to Arabic instruction.
Parents sometimes speak off-message and show their real feelings. Katia Lief, for example, spoke of her concern about "a cultural-religious school" with "girls in burkas," the Sun reported. (That some days later she wrote a confused apology for the "girls in burkas" comment only confirms the parents' fear of plain talk.)
It is common to object to Islamic institutions by raising practical issues such as crowding, traffic, and parking. Already in a co-authored study in 1991, I noted several instances of this pattern in Europe and America, and it has become even more routine since then.
The fact is that Islamic institutions, whether schools or mosques, do have a pattern of extremism and even violence. Concerns are valid and should be aired openly. The schools chancellor, Joel Klein, has promised, "If any school became a religious school," he would shut it down, adding that he will not tolerate "a political school with a political agenda."