Katherine Kersten is the self-appointed prosecutor of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy and I am the self-appointed prosecutor of Kersten. With the fall school bell ringing, Kersten again went off on the Inver Grove Heights charter school in today's Strib, and that means a new Reality Check from me.
When last seen before summer break, Kersten had thrown out a series of charges that the Arabic language charter school was impermissibly inculcating Islam on the taxpayer's dime. She alleged the curriculum was sub-rosa religious, there was illicit ritual foot-washing, and that students were forced to pray to Allah both during and after school.
In the end, the Minnesota Department of Education found all that baseless. However, the state noted problems with a voluntary Friday prayer that was too long and adult-led, and also said buses should leave after the school day, not following extracurricular activities.
Saturday might have been a bad day in the Kersten household when Katherine picked up her own paper to read that TIZA had addressed the sore points to the department's satisfaction. The prayer would be shortened, adults would only monitor the proceedings and parents would be reimbursed if they needed after-school transportation.
What to do? Wait a couple of days, and then allege, "Behind the scenes, a storm is brewing."
To be fair to Kersten, she backstopped this contention with reporting — an interview with Deputy Education Commissioner Chas Anderson, who sounded pretty irked.
The latest episode began in late August, when TIZA officials laid out their compliance plans in a letter to the department. Along the way, they questioned the legal underpinnings of the department's May objections.
In response, Anderson wrote, "The department found the defensive tone of TIZA's letter surprising … It is inaccurate for TIZA to imply that [Ed Department] concerns … were unfounded and it is of utmost importance that TIZA take seriously its responsibility to comply with applicable state and federal laws."
Anderson went on to tell Kersten she is "very troubled" by TIZA's insistence on prayer during the school day and doubts student-run prayer can truly be led by students.
It all sounds pretty fractious — until you read letters in full, which neither Kersten nor the Strib provide.
Read TIZA's missive (PDF) — it isn't long — and judge for yourself. Here's how the "defensive" letter begins:
"Thank you for the professionalism of your staff during the recent visits. … Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy takes seriously the concerns raised in your report. We believe that we have been in complete compliance with the law in the prior year. Since we have a slightly different understanding of the relevant laws, please allow us to explain our understanding of the relevant laws."
To me, the letter patiently and respectfully makes it case, then offers to make the changes anyway. Does this sound like a "defensive" blow-off?:
"We take seriously the concerns raised in your report. We are also mindful of the enormous hysteria generated by certain individuals in the media and the death threats that resulted from them. We do not look forward to such a situation in the future."
Things get even less sensational when you read the full Ed Department communication (PDF).
Yes, Anderson asserts her view of TIZA's tone — which to me seems more defensive than TIZA's letter. Even if not, Kersten is cherrypicking the least material paragraph in the communication. Here's the money sentence:
"In general, MDE finds that TIZA's plans for afterschool transportation and Friday prayer may be in compliance with the law, subject to confirmation of the Department's understandings regarding Friday prayer set forth below."
Those understandings basically underscore, rather than challenge, TIZA's plan. It's hard to read the Ed Department's letter as anything other than acknowledgment that TIZA's plan is legal.
(You may have noted the department only says TIZA "may be" in compliance with the law. Too squishy? If you're going to go there, consider this: Kersten writes "TIZA's Friday prayer event violated the law," but a May Ed Department letter (PDF) states the prayer "does not appear to satisfy" the law. If TIZA's compliance is on shaky ground, so is Kersten's assertion.)
The bottom line: TIZA offers a plan, and the Ed Department agrees, subject to reasonable verification.
The Strib has occasionally provided supporting documentation for past Kersten columns, but it really needs to make that a habit when TIZA is involved. By definition, columnists aren't your go-to folks for context, but given anti-Muslim fervor and acknowledged death threats, this is an especially hot button, punched for a story that seems to shrink as the weeks roll by.
(As has been true in the past, TIZA screws up by not engaging Kersten beyond a bland statement that, frankly, makes the school's case look weaker than the documentation suggests.)
There is, of course, delicious irony in Kersten, a small-government conservative, championing an offended bureaucrat. Crusades sometimes require marriages of convenience.
That's not the column's biggest irony, however: in her penultimate paragraph, Kersten approvingly quotes an Ed Department statement that "this upcoming legislative session may be an appropriate forum" for "a serious discussion about the appropriateness of sectarian organizations sponsoring publicly funded charter schools in the first place."
Given that the bulk of those charters are Christian-sponsored ones Kersten has written about approvingly in the past, be careful what you wish for, Kate.