It's urgent that Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the people of Minnesota hold the Minnesota Department of Education accountable to the goal of closing the achievement gap -- and to the duty to provide just governance.
Unfortunately, the department has abused its authority in an attempt to discredit the reputation of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a public charter school that consistently meets or exceeds state averages for all students in math and reading.
Following various complaints about TiZA in the press and elsewhere, the department secretly investigated the school for cheating, presumably because TiZA students perform so well. At first, senior department staff made a surprise visit to TiZA to observe students testing. Though no testing irregularities were found, the deputy education commissioner hired a private test detective firm -- Caveon, from Utah -- at a cost to taxpayers of $30,000.
Caveon, too, found no evidence of any cheating or testing irregularities.
The deputy commissioner next leaked details of a secret investigation she is conducting into the lease aid that TiZA receives to help pay rent, because of an alleged religious affiliation.
No similar investigation is being made of the 30-plus other religious institutions that sponsor and house charter schools. TiZA learned of the investigation only through a Star Tribune article. Six weeks later, the school is still without any notification from the Department of Education.
In addition, the deputy commissioner has withheld $1.4 million of TiZA's state and federal funding by alleging teacher licensure violations that do not exist. Based only upon allegations and without official resolution, the department suspended more than $800,000 in federal grants -- including one that would have helped other schools learn from TiZA how to close the achievement gap.
Clearly, the department has forgotten the educational priorities for Minnesota students. Quality of life for African-American students continues to be threatened by a persistent achievement gap.
Results of national testing just released reveal that Minnesota has not made significant progress in closing the large gap between how white students perform compared with students of color. The study examined math scores from the national achievement test called the NAEP. Eighth-grade black students in Minnesota scored 37 points below white students -- no significant difference from 1990.
Yet TiZA is one Minnesota school that is effectively closing the achievement gap. More than 80 percent of its students are of African descent and live in poverty.
Compare the 2009 test results:
•92 percent of black students at TiZA scored proficient on the Mathematics MCA test, compared with 34 percent of black students statewide.
•69 percent of black students at TiZA scored proficient on the Mathematics MTELL Test, compared with 20 percent of black students in the state.
•66 percent of black students at TiZA scored proficient on the Reading MCA, compared with 45 percent of black students statewide.
Given these results, it is even more alarming to examine the Education Department's pattern of discriminatory treatment toward TiZA.
The St. Paul branch of the NAACP has filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Justice to review the actions of the state Education Department.
The NAACP would like to work with the department and with schools like TiZA to provide leadership to other schools. Failure to hold department officials accountable jeopardizes the future of public education for all children in Minnesota.
Nathaniel Khaliq is president of the St. Paul branch of the NAACP. Claudie Washington is president of the organization's Minnesota State Conference.