The Minnesota Education Department did not racially discriminate against an Inver Grove Heights charter school by investigating its test scores and teacher licenses and by conducting audits, the U.S. Education Department has determined.
The federal department's Office for Civil Rights investigated the state agency's conduct after the president of the St. Paul NAACP alleged that students at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy were being discriminated against based on their African-American race or Somali nationality, the complaint stated.
Tarek ibn Ziyad, known as TiZA, is being sued in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which is alleging the school is blurring the line between religion and public education by promoting Islam.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU also accuses the public school of reporting strikingly high test results.
The school, which also has a campus in Blaine, consists of approximately 80 percent immigrant students, whose families originate from about 15 countries, school leaders reported. At least 50 percent of students are Somali.
The civil rights office found that the state Education Department treated the school "differently" by targeting it for on-site visits to investigate its testing procedures because of the ACLU's lawsuit, the March 15 findings stated.
"However, OCR has determined that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the different treatment to which (TiZA) was subjected was based on the race or national origin of (TiZA's) students," the findings reported.
Shamus O'Meara, an attorney representing the school in the federal lawsuit, said he would not comment on the findings dismissing the discrimination complaint. Instead, he said the state's investigation into the school's testing procedures intentionally circumvented federal court rules that govern how parties can prepare for the lawsuit.
"We think the department has intentionally targeted TiZA without any factual basis and expended thousands of dollars in public money to gain a selfish advantage for themselves in the federal lawsuit," O'Meara said Wednesday.
The state Education Department also hired a private company to investigate the test scores, he added.
Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said the school's claim is just a distraction tactic.
"Today's statement by TiZA lawyers is a distraction from the fact their complaint was dismissed, and their mischaracterization of the (Office for Civil Rights) findings is unacceptable and execrable," Walsh said.
The state Education Department investigated the school's alleged test-score cheating to properly prepare for the lawsuit, Walsh said. It was the department's obligation to protect state taxpayers and students by defending itself and Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who also is named in the suit, he said.
"Everything we did was completely appropriate," Walsh said.
The state treated TiZA differently because of the lawsuit's allegations, which it had to investigate, he said. But, Walsh added, the civil rights office found no evidence that the department illegally discriminated against the school.
The federal office also reported that the state department was consistent with its policies when investigating the school for teacher licensure violations and imposing fines for those violations, the findings stated.
Last November, Seagren upheld a decision to fine TiZA nearly $140,000 for employing eight teachers who did not have valid teaching licenses or permits. The school is fighting that decision in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The civil rights office also found no evidence that TiZA was singled out in the 19 audits and investigations done by the state agency at the school from January 2008 to September 2009.
Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he filed a complaint last fall against the state after reading media reports that the school was being investigated because of its high test scores from mostly immigrant and economically disadvantaged students and its religious accommodations for students, such as prayer time.
"It was really puzzling to us why this charter school was being scrutinized," he said. "The Minnesota Department of Education should have been supporting this school at every turn to continue to achieve."
The NAACP felt morally and legally obligated to file a complaint, Khaliq said.
The decision by the civil rights office reaffirms the association's beliefs that the school was treated differently, he said. However, the federal department did not find that the state illegally discriminated against the school.
"But we still feel that it was based on race and national origin," he said.
The NAACP has up to 60 days to appeal the decision, which the group is considering.