Sunday, December 28, 2008

Reconsidering the Role of Sponsors in Minnesota Charter Schools

Islamic Saudi Academy
By Supna Zaidi

It might be time for the Minnesota Board of Education (MDE) to do away with sponsors in their charter school program. Consider a report that came out earlier this year from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (the Auditor), which confirmed the lack of clarity between the MDE and its sponsors.

For example, the MDE and prospective sponsors both approve charter applications, but the MDE's relies on the prospective sponsor's review of the charter school rather than an independent review. While the evaluation report argues this as inefficient because it is "duplicating" work, it poses a greater problem. Since MDE's approval is colored by the sponsor's evaluation of the charter school, sponsors a lot of power in reviewing charter schools and presenting them to the MDE as they see fit.

This is important to consider given the separation of church and state issues raised in an application to sponsor three charter schools by the Minnesota Education Trust (MET) this year. This is because the MET's 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."

Last year, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (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. 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.

The MET is in a position to oversee three charter schools. The potential conflict of interest issues raised by MET's stated goals is a burden the MDE cannot and should not have to handle. Especially since the role of sponsor was created to remove the task of academic and fiscal oversight of charter schools from the MDE to these third parties, which as MDE staff have noted, is already a responsibility they cannot handle:

"…sponsors need to improve, but [sic] the department does not have the time or resources to implement standards." Adding the task of overseeing the presence of religion is unduly burdensome.

It is important to understand that the issue of religion in schools is not simply about Islam or any one faith. Rather, it is a matter of understanding the changing position of religious schools in American society.

Historically, 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. As "identity schools", they are permitted to "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."

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.

Yet, even the Hebrew schools can be distinguished from the Islamic schools that come into question. It is one thing to have to revise curriculum that promotes a particular faith, it is another matter when the promotion of one faith includes political angendas or indoctrination of discrimination towards other faiths.

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;

2. Carver Elementary School in San Diego, CA;

3. The Arabic Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, NY;

4. Ohio Somali charter schools.

With the increasing inability of religious schools to find private funding, their conversion to identity schools is a potential threat to taxpayers who do not want their money used to promote religion.

The MDE should consider the Auditor's "Option 3", which suggests eliminating sponsors for direct MDE oversight. Citing 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 very likely wish to use charter schools to proselytize Islam, will not have the opportunity to use taxpayer money to do so subversively.

(Supna Zaidi is editor-in-chief of Muslim World Today and asst director of Islamist Watch at the Middle East Forum)

Source: Muslim World Today


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