Rep. Mindy Greiling, Dr. Wayne Jennings and I agree about the TiZA charter public school in Inver Grove Heights: We should be learning from rather than litigating against it. We have visited the school, unlike the American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota staff, who acknowledge they have not. At a time when President Barack Obama is urging Americans to work together (and to support and expand charter schools with outstanding results), why not try further negotiation and cooperation before confrontation via a lawsuit?
The Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy carries out research-based ideas about helping immigrants become active, positive American citizens. Dr. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University, urges that recent immigrants be encouraged to learn English and helped to retain their native language as well as respect for adults and academic achievement, along with modest dress — all of which is part of their culture. TIZA promotes each of these things.
TiZA's academic achievement is excellent. The school is 4 percent white and 96 percent students of color. Seventy percent of the students have limited English proficiency and 81 percent are from low-income families. Yet, state figures show that 89 percent of TiZA's eighth-grade students were proficient in reading (compared with 66 percent statewide). Seventy-nine percent of TiZA's eighth graders are proficient in math, compared with 58 percent of students statewide.
There is more to praise. Jennings has visited TiZA often as monitor for the school's sponsor. Inexplicably, the ACLU has not asked for his observations. Jennings has spent more than four decades in public schools (including as St. Paul Open School's founding principal and Central High School principal). Jennings also is a longtime member of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation for Church and State.
Jennings recently wrote: "TiZA has excellent academic results (and) a strong, positive culture of inclusion and acceptance ... (TiZA) should be emulated, rather than prosecuted."
Greiling, chair of the Minnesota House K-12 Finance Committee, also has visited TiZA. Last week, her reactions included: "I am strongly on the side of separation of church and state (I was one of few who voted against tuition tax credits and deductions for private schools). I am very pleased to have the guidelines (on school prayer developed by the Bush administration) questioned but hate to see the one test case be a fine school that singles out the much maligned Muslims."
I agree. My Jewish heritage encourages me to challenge religious and racial hatred. Unfortunately, online reactions to the ACLU lawsuit on this and other Web sites show racial/religious intolerance is being stirred up.
Since 1972, foundations, accreditation groups, and government officials have asked me to visit and assess public and parochial schools. These visits and other research help me understand their differences. In the last decade, I've written many columns and made presentations opposing tax support for K-12 religious schools.
From tone to textbooks, TiZA is a public school. Unlike religious schools I've visited, TiZA does not post religious symbols. Unlike religious schools, TiZA's textbooks are neutral, full of information from various cultures, and do not promote or proclaim the superiority of one religion. I saw a wide variety of assignments, sometimes from textbooks found in many public schools. I put TiZA in the top 5 percent of public schools I've visited based on student results and promotion of American ideals.
The ACLU criticizes TiZA for an (optional, legal) after-school religious program. But many of TiZA's students (the majority, according to Director Asad Zaman) attend free after-school programs providing academic tutoring or helping students develop leadership, character and presentation skills. These free, nonsectarian extended-day programs are consistent with other public schools producing outstanding results with low-income, limited-English-speaking students.
ACLU criticizes TiZA's dress code differences between boys and girls. But many public school dress codes include differences between genders.
There is not space to deal with each ACLU criticism. But the ACLU relies too much on "hearsay." When we talked last week, the ACLU's Minnesota director described my writing (inaccurately) but acknowledged he hadn't read any of it. His source was "other people."
He also acknowledged that his board does not include any Muslim, Hispanic or Asian Americans. I've learned a lot from such people. The ACLU could benefit from a more diverse board.
ACLU and TiZA leaders blame each other for not working out a school visit. They should. Minnesota will benefit from less confrontation and more cooperation.
Rather than taking TiZA and the state to court, I hope the ACLU meets with TiZA and the Minnesota Department of Education. This could save Minnesota taxpayers a lot of money, reduce religious tensions and insure more attention goes to helping students. That should be our focus.
Joe Nathan, a former St. Paul Public School teacher, administrator and parent, directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. His e-mail address is email@example.com.