Last year, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) in Inver Grove Heights, MI raised controversy when a substitute teacher alleged that the publicly funded charter school was teaching Islam. Now, the Minnesota Education Trust (MET) is raising eyebrows by applying to be a sponsor of charter schools because its articles of incorporation state that one of its goals is "to promote the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims and promote understanding between them."
TIZA was accused of leading students in Islamic prayer on Fridays and teaching Quranic classes after school everyday, among other religious practices, which violated the separation of church and state doctrine. Further investigation revealed that TIZA is housed at the headquarters of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, along with a mosque. Its sponsor is Islamic Relief USA, a California-based organization, and TIZA's K-8 students are nearly all Muslim. In the end, some changes were made, but the school was not found to be in such gross violation as to have their funding or charter status taken away.
Promoting Islam, or any faith at TIZA would not have been an issue if it was a private school, where funding does not come from taxpayers. As a charter school, like public schools, on the other hand, the separation of "church and state" means that staff must maintain a clear line between teaching the history and tenets of a faith in a neutral, historic fashion. Otherwise, the school violates the establishment clause of the Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"
Charter schools, while not permitted to promote faith can, "focus their study and/or their student body based on a certain classification, and can include same-language/culture schools, single-sex schools, same-race schools and same-sexual orientation schools." As such, they are sometimes called "identity" schools.
But is there a legitimate line between culture and religion? Initially, religious schools presented competition to public schools. But with the advent of charter schools that do not ask for tuition, but strive to offer the quality of a private school, the latter is losing students. This is true for some Catholic schools, which are being forced to convert to charter schools to prevent closing their doors. Thus, the discipline, morals and rigor of the Catholic staff and teachers would remain, but all evidence of religion would be removed in favor of a secular curriculum.
The trend may be the opposite for Muslim and Jewish schools, which attempt to separate religion from culture to justify receiving taxpayer funding. Some critics of Hebrew schools have argued that attempting to separate religion from culture is an "unrealistic and unsustainable" goal. "There's nothing wrong with preserving ethnic and cultural identity, but it's not the job of the state to do that," said Michael Stern. He is the chairman of the San Antonio Jewish Community Relations Council, who spoke on his own behalf to the Jewish Daily Forward. Moreover, some fear that attempting to inculcate an ethnic identity will also encourage sectarianism instead of civic and American identity since a Hebrew or Islamic/Arabic school will logically be most attractive to families of those backgrounds alone making the school ethnically or religiously homogeneous.
Some charter schools with large Muslim and/or Arab student bodies that have raised similar concerns are:
1. Silicon Valley Academy, a charter school in Sunnyvale, CA for promoting Islam;
2. Carver Elementary School in San Diego, CA for promoting Islam;
3. The Arabic Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, NY for potential Islamist curriculum;
4. Ohio Somali charter schools for promoting Islam.
Given this context, the goals of MET, as articulated in their articles of incorporation should be a concern for Minnesota state taxpayers. Sponsors oversee the potentially multiple charter schools at a time, reducing the MDE's burden to oversee the academic and fiscal progress of each school. But with the increasing inability of religious schools to find funding for private schools, their conversion to identity schools is a potential threat to taxpayers who do not want their money used to promote religion.
An evaluation report that came out this summer from the Office of the Legislative Auditor, this past summer confirmed the problems between the MDE and sponsors. For example, the MDE and prospective sponsors approve both approve charter applications. While the evaluation report argues this as inefficient because it is "duplicating" work, it poses a greater problem. MDE's approval is based on the sponsor's authorized application of a charter school, i.e. the MDE review is colored by the sponsor's evaluation of the charter school, giving sponsors a lot of power in reviewing charter schools and presenting them to the MDE through as they see fit.
Moreover, page 54 of the evaluation report states that, "In interviews, MDE staff agreed that sponsors need to improve, but said the department does not have the time or resources to implement standards."
Oversight for religion increases the burden on the state that its budget, resources and staff cannot handle. It may make more sense, as the evaluation report recommends as "Option 3", to eliminate sponsors and have the MDE directly oversee charter schools. Giving Massachusetts as an example, the report states, "Single authorizer states [as opposed to a variety of sponsors] are bound to be more successful in many ways because there is a clear picture. We are able to give every school in the state the same information, the same clarification, the same point of contact."
Thus, prospective sponsors like the MET, who wish to promote religion, at best as an effort to encourage interfaith dialogue, and at worst to specifically proselytize Islam will not be possible. It raises conflict of interest issues, where sponsors like MET cannot reasonably maintain separation of church and state since its own goals conflict with that doctrine. Further, it demands creating "tests" to determine where culture ends and religion begins. This is standard of expertise that most departments of education may not be able to review, and should not be burdened with the duty to do so.