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Kersten’s Arabic-school source: even more to the story

A few days ago, I wrote that Katherine Kersten’s April 9 broadside against an Arabic charter school featured a substitute-teacher source who — unbeknownst to readers — had been a conservative Republican college activist.

Thursday, I spoke to the teacher, Amanda Getz, a personable young woman who called me right back from her job at a day spa. I wanted to know if she had requested the TIZA assignment and whether — as KSTP’s Beth Jett subsequently characterized it — what Getz saw there truly “totally took her by surprise” and “shocked her.”

As it turns out, the surprise could not have been total.

On the surface, the timeline is suspicious. Getz received her teaching license just five weeks before she showed up at TIZA. Kersten’s original column ran March 9; Getz taught at the school five days later.

Getz says she was assigned to the school “completely at random.” It was one of three single-day assignments she received from Teachers on Call, a Bloomington-based placement service. (Teachers on Call did not return three messages asking about their involvement, and TIZA says company officials won’t return their calls, either.)

Contrary to KSTP’s script, Getz was clearly aware going in that the school was a cultural hot zone. Before teaching at TIZA, she showed her dad her assignments. He noticed TIZA on the list, and handed her Kersten’s original March 9 column, she says. The piece was filled with innuendo that the taxpayer-supported charter school was impermissibly teaching Islam. The school shared space with a mosque; its sponsor was linked to Hamas; the school’s cafeteria serves halal food.

‘Interesting’ assignment
Getz’s parents are educational conservatives — so conservative, in fact, that her mom and dad signed a Public Proclamation for the Separation of School and State. Not church and state — school and state. The document’s first line? “I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education.”

Getz said that her dad didn’t give her any direction when showed her the Kersten column, commenting only that the assignment would be “interesting.” (She said she has never heard of the proclamation. She has not signed it, according to the website.)

The young teacher says she did experience genuine surprise after her day at TIZA. That’s because Getz wasn’t sure Kersten’s original piece was accurate — until she saw things for herself. “Columnists sometimes tell the news in a biased way, and I was surprised that [reports of impermissible religious teaching] were pretty much true,” Getz says.

That prompted the call to Kersten that inspired the April 9 column. Getz said she and Kersten did not know each other previously.

Getz insists ideology did not color her TIZA comments. She says the accusation of political bias is “sort of a joke” among her friends, “since I’m probably the least political person in our group.” The stint with the College GOP was more about leadership development than political ax grinding, she adds.

Does Getz’s history really matter? At least one MinnPost commentator argued my original piece was nothing more than an ad hominem attack, focusing on the person rather than the facts of what Getz witnessed.

But it’s important to note that at this point her observations are not facts — they are one person’s unverified views. (And remember, the state had never received a complaint about TIZA prior to the columns.)

I’m not saying Getz is wrong; I honestly don’t know. But any source’s motives — especially in a case that inspires national “terrorist madrassa” braying and local hate calls — deserve vetting, and especially disclosure. Sources are biased — and so are writers, who need to be pressed to disclose information that complicates their tub-thumping or sensational scripts.

Let’s say a DFL union activist criticized a “classical” charter school for teaching Christianity sub-rosa. I suspect conservatives would want that personal history to be reported.

For the record, I’m a Democrat-voting, public-school-loving, Muslim-liking guy.

Related note:
Minnesota Monitor’s Andy Birkey has a really good case study Thursday of Kersten’s recent St. Thomas criticism, tracing it from the Powerline blog through an activist press release the columnist may have followed a bit too slavishly.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/18/2008 - 04:04 pm.

    I applaud Amanda Getz, both for choosing to be an educator, and for freely offering her observations both to Kersten and to Brauer. In fact, of those three (Getz, Kersten, and Brauer), the substitute teacher seems the most open and least agenda-driven (Kersten’s agenda is plainly clear, and Brauer’s agenda is, well, anti-Kersten).

    Even the confirmed observations of the school so far are enough to warrant a little scrutiny from its funding source. It probably won’t amount to anything, but when religious groups handle public education, no matter the religion, it’s probably worth a look.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/18/2008 - 11:36 pm.

    The KKK Handbook:How to do a cross burning without a cross…

    The KKKurse has been irradically, irrationally unleashed against the Arabic charter school, Tiza; its students,its legitimate teachers. This is one dangerous game to play in a democratic society or any society. Threats that have resulted from Kersten’s hate columns are unjustifiable harrassment and may this hate monger pray to her god, whomever, that no harm comes to any of the Tiza school under the threat of her most damaging statements. Do we fail to speak up? How long before Kersten’s rabid rhetoric instigates an Arabic Christalnacht (night of the broken glass) against a school of Arabic cultural studies? Hate is not a tool that sits lightly on any journalist’s pen.

  3. Submitted by Jason Witt on 04/18/2008 - 06:05 pm.

    You would have to be blind not to see the angle of this story showing the ulterior motives of the reporter. What’s worse is to consider the quality of the paper where it got editorial approval.

    Where is the ACLU? Where is the admission that under Islamic law a liberal journalist would be picking up garbage or doing a similar “patriotic” job instead of insulting Islam with his writings?

    This is one more journalist who doesn’t care about revealing the truth, one more journalist who isn’t on a mission to make sure those in positions of power play fair. This is a journalist and paper sold out to political pandering. Period.

  4. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/19/2008 - 02:11 pm.

    Here are my thoughts in no particular order:

    1. The views of the parents are not relevant here. Period.

    2. The views and/or political orientation of the witness are relevant to the extent it might give her a motive to lie. If she is a Republican and/or a conservative, does that make her anti-Muslim? It might make her pro-war, which in turn could seem anti-Muslim, which in turn could cause her to lie. That is way too many twists and turns to make the Republican revelation a smoking gun.

    3. If she truly had taken the assignment as a whistleblower (which appears not to be the case), so what? People file test cases all the time. If activists or journalists try to rent an apartment in hopes of exposing housing discrimination, is that OK? The subjective motives of the witness are only relevant to the extent that she is possibly lying or misinterpreting the facts.

    4. If she (not her parents, but she herself) follows the Republican position on vouchers, then she has a motive to view the charter school with religious links in the most favorable light. Now if she were in favor of vouchers only for non-sectarian and Christian schools, then maybe the Republican link is revealing in some complicated Rube Goldberg kind of way.

    5. Questioning Getz’s motives was an ad hominem. But not all ad hominems are bad. It depends whether her motives and truthfulness are at issue (see above).

    6. In what sense is it an “Arabic” charter school? This is a genuine question. Is it language immersion, like they have Spanish ones? Or is it more generally Eastern cultures?

    7. I think the Left missed an opportunity to score points against conservatives (like me). Instead of focusing on Amanda Getz, how about asking how this is any different than vouchers for (both secular and religious) private schools in Cleveland or anywhere else? If Amanda Getz was not a zombie brainwashed by her parents and Katherine Kersten, and she really saw what she saw, then our tax dollars are going to a religious school. Instead of little checks going to the parents, who in turn pay tuition, one big check is going to the school. In a voucher system, TIZA would be free to have teachers lead prayers five times per day and fly whatever flag they wanted to (or none at all). Would that be a better use of our tax dollars?

    8. There is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. The Left would be more concerned if this were allegedly a Christian school and the Right would be less concerned. But there is an objective set of facts out there as to what level of participation the faculty and staff have in the religious activity of the students. Then there is a legal interpretation of these facts. Neither the objective facts nor the legal interpretation is changed by inconsistency on both sides of the political spectrum.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 04/19/2008 - 02:46 pm.

    Thanks readers – good comments, generally, even the ones that ding me.

    As to one of Peter’s points: I call it an Arabic charter school because every student is required to take Arabic as a second language.

    I continue to believe Kersten’s story would’ve been better had she included a bit more about her source’s motivations. I think that’s important in single-source cases where the facts are being challenged. I disagree that in this case, such vetting/disclosure is ad hominem.

    I can guarantee you if the person complaining about TIZA was a liberal DFLer, Kersten would’ve mentioned that.

  6. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/19/2008 - 03:44 pm.

    Disclose her religion? Maybe. Political party? Probably not. The connection is way to attenuated.

    In any event it is ad hominem – perhaps not unfairly so, but it is an ad hominem. Just as Judge Kevin Burke being fairly questioned about his own animal control allegations is an ad hominem in the context of his adjudicating a dog attack case.

    Here’s another can of worms. If the party affiliation of a charter school whistleblower is relevant to the story, should the party affilitation of a judge running for reelection be relevant to voters? Discuss.

  7. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/20/2008 - 01:01 am.

    CORRECTION – “way too attenuated…”

  8. Submitted by Ed Day on 04/20/2008 - 01:04 pm.

    For the record, the first time someone said, “Duh, is the pope, Catholic?” I really didn’t know. Also thought Yom Kippur was smoked herring. And I’m not an atheist.

    That said, the bigger issue here is the appalling lack of oversight for charter schools in general. Yearly inspections should be mandatory rather than this complaint-driven system (Is this a staffing problem for the DOE?). Charter schools seem to have a lot of latitude to provide niches for students who don’t thrive in their home districts or simply not stay interested without their favorite topic being integrated into the curriculum. Common charter themes seem to be the arts, music, or languages. I support this concept.

    As I understand it (someone please chime in to correct me), as long as charter schools provide the basic core curriculum, they can fiddle with the scheduling of courses and enrichment activities all they want. TIZA seems to have found a gigantic loophole by taking advantage of the self-selection process that attracts students to any charter school.
    You must take Arabic.
    The schedule appears to allow ample free time, during which students may wash their feet or look toward Mecca — or read or do push-ups!
    Learning about Islam is among the extracurricular activities.

    So it’s conceivable that all these activities are optional, but all students choose to participate in them. I can’t imagine a non-Muslim applying to TIZA. Learning a language you have no interest in is an onerous activity, though if they offered a high school curriculum and I were an outcast in Inver Grove Heights anyway, learning Arabic might be a small price to pay for being able to skip out on the Friday afternoon assemblies.

    Right now I’m inclined to think TIZA has simply been walking the line with a lot of technicalities explaining the the things Amanda Getz saw–she can’t be the first person to notice these things. A change in the rules for charter school might be in order then. We’ll all know more once the DOE and ACLU are finished with their investigations. If they find in favor of TIZA, it would provide a template for Christian schools to do the same, pending they can find a hook like requiring Arabic that would attract Christians and no one else.

  9. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/23/2008 - 12:37 am.

    Tony. Fair enough, I stand corrected. But it is also fair to say that the Republican Party platform is more favorable to charter schools than the Democrat platform. If we were to assume prejudice against an upstart charter school, without unionized teachers and other aspects of traditional school district, my money would be on a Democrat.

  10. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/22/2008 - 04:00 pm.

    Peter: it seems you are more interested in mischaracterizing others statements than in honest discussion. Nowhere did I claim that “the Republican platform is against all public schools” as you say. What I wrote was that “the current Republican party platform is more critical of public education than the Democratic side.” If you cannot see the difference between those two statements, I doubt we can continue this discussion in any meaningful sense.

  11. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/21/2008 - 10:15 am.

    In comment #2, Jason Witt asked, “Where’s the ACLU?” In the linked Kersten story, she mentioned this:

    “The ACLU of Minnesota has launched an investigation of TIZA…”

    I believe Brauer has a bias against Kersten, which has colored his treatment of the issue thus far, but I don’t think this is a “righty/lefty” issue like Jason Witt, Peter Swanson, and others want to paint it. If Getz was indeed an active politico (and a simple Google search could find evidence to support such a notion), she would view things differently at an Islamic charter school than the average apolitical person. It’s not lying, it’s not have suspect “motives,” it’s just an honest differences of perception and perspective. Kersten definitely skirted around this issue (i.e. the fact that Getz was aware of Kersten’s article before visiting the school could have been disclosed), although ultimately it doesn’t look like a big deal.

    Kersten wants us to believe that TIZA is part of some nefarious plot; Brauer wants us to believe her criticism of TIZA is part of some nefarious plot. The truth, as it so often does, seems to split the difference. Ed Day probably summed things up best in #8: TIZA is most likely the result of poor charter school guidelines/oversight. Hopefully we will see some press on that idea soon, rather than righty/lefty posturing.

  12. Submitted by Ken Kadet on 04/21/2008 - 11:34 am.

    David, you could argue all week that you’re not making an ad hominem attack on Amanda Getz or Katherine Kersten or TIZA. Or, you could get on the phone, call up TIZA and make some time to check out the place yourself and tell us about it.

    Shouldn’t someone do that?

    I know you’re a media critic, and that you see this as a media bias issue, but Dr. Glasser at the U told me years back that there is no such thing as unbiased media — every choice you make is made based on some sort of bias.

    And frankly, Kersten’s biases are pretty out in the open — I dismiss them quickly or accept them for what they are on that basis — even the quotes.

    But heck — there is an easy way for the professional media to deal with this — stop writing about one article and give us another report!

  13. Submitted by David Brauer on 04/21/2008 - 12:59 pm.

    Good comments continue to come. A few responses to more recent ones:

    Peter says it’s OK to disclose Amanda’s religion in this case (which, by the way, I don’t think I did) but not her party. I disagree; if you don’t think conservative Republicans have been the locus of anti-Muslim sentiment, you’re not paying attention. It’s a valid datapoint, I think.

    Also, political affiliation of judges is often mentioned; stories about controversial decisions often mention the name and party of the political official who appointed them.

    I think Tony Wagner is overreaching when he says this is not a lefty-righty issue. At the very least, I’d speculate that it’s truer than not. While the ACLU has been an ideology buster for years (which makes Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on them so silly), it’s often isolated in that regard.

    To Ken Kadet: speaking strictly for myself, I don’t think a media critic needs to re-report a story when he’s critiquing coverage. I’ve been strenuous not to say Amanda is right or wrong – not in my wheelhouse. As always, it’s been about full (or proper) disclosure and sensationalism.

    That said, I do think local news reporters should check out TIZA, but one problem now is that the school is under the microscope and past practices may have changed. Someone may be out there checking right now, but there will probably be a flurry after the stepped-up state inspections happen.

  14. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/21/2008 - 02:13 pm.

    1. David Brauer did not mention her religion. I was just saying that religion would be a closer prediction of whether someone had a beef against Muslims than political party.

    2. “Republican” means a political party with platforms and legislative agenda. Some platform items and legislation, like vouchers, would actually indicate that a Republican is favorably disposed toward TIZA. “Conservative” is an ideology ranging from economic to social to foreign policy issues. Islam lines up quite nicely with the social conservative ideology. That some Republicans have done things deemed anti-Muslim does not mean there is a predisposition among Republicans.

    3. Taken as a series of columns, this is not a single-source story. Some of her sources, like Kevin Featherly, were pro-TIZA.

    4. For one story supportive of TIZA (I think it was Featherly’s but I can’t find it online), I seem to remember basically taking Zaman at his word as to how often DOE inspected the school. If we are going to criticize journalists, how about that?

    5. There is a curious thing going on with the defense of TIZA generally. On the one hand defenders say it is not – repeat – not a Muslim school. At the same time, the controversy is an anti-Muslim plot by that anti-Muslim political party.

    6. Whatever side you take on this issue, is anyone concerned that TIZA is trying to reach Teachers on Call? There is no allegation of Food-Lion-esque misconduct here. Whatever her motives, is Getz anything other than a whistleblower? What will the conversation be like when the placement service finally answers the phone? Will they ask them to screen better in the future? Will they ask them not to send Getz anymore? No more Republicans?

  15. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/21/2008 - 04:21 pm.

    Peter Swanson: I don’t think voucher support would make a Republican favorable to TIZA. They may use TIZA as an example of how vouchers could work for more than just Christian private schools, but in the current environment, I think most, like Kersten, would be upset at the apparent “double standard” benefitting TIZA and Islam in public schools.

    And it doesn’t really have anything to do with an anti-Muslim bias: there should really be no question that the current Republican party platform is more critical of public education than the Democratic side, particular in the matters of non-traditional teaching and school settings funded at taxpayer expense. Kersten herself has devoted many columns to these issues with education, and I think that has been Brauer’s point for some time. Religious affiliation would seem to offer zero indication on how someone would view TIZA — in fact, I honestly don’t know the religious affiliation of either Getz or Kersten, and it doesn’t matter in regards to this story.

    I agree with some of your other points, particularly questioning the relevance of Teachers On Call, but another thing to keep in mind is that Brauer has never really been “defending TIZA.” He has mostly been questioning Kersten’s handling of the story, which could be viewed as a slight de facto defense, but ultimately this probably wasn’t meant to be an analysis of the TIZA school itself (that would be a much more complicated story, which is probably Brauer’s beef with Kersten giving it her usual “three column rant” treatment).

  16. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/22/2008 - 11:10 am.

    Tony Wagner – Your logic makes sense. But I disagree with the premise that the Republican platform is against all public schools. It is for public school choice, especially charter schools.

    You are taking a different approach than David Brauer. He is saying that Republican = Anti-Muslim. You are saying Republican = Anti-Public Schools. Your position makes logical sense, although I think it is wrong.

    If I were to put on my media critic hat, I would say that people who demand that political party should be disclosed need to go through the logic step by step, as you have done. It is not enough to assert, “She’s a Republican, say no more.”

  17. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/23/2008 - 02:33 pm.

    Peter: your example might ring true in some hypothetical situation, but remember, in this instance, Kersten was the first to be publicly critical of TIZA, and she did so from the political and social conservative perspective of her column. So when someone reads her and offers their personal observations for a follow-up column, it begs the question, is this person politically predisposed to Kersten’s way of thinking?

    In matters of disclosing political or religious affiliation, the disclosure has to be specific enough to provide meaning. Identifying a person as a “Christian” is next to worthless, as I imagine a majority of Minnesotans could be classified as such, with no indication of how active they are in their faith, much less what band of Christianity (conservative, moderate, liberal) they may subscribe to. To be a self-declared “Republican” or “political/social conservative” is instantly a more specific label, since they almost certainly number significantly less than half of our adult population (due to the prominence of political independents). And when someone seeks office in their College Republicans club, that narrows it down even further. The disclosure may not mean the same thing for everybody (Getz may well be different than most other College Republican officers), and such a disclosure doesn’t dismiss her observations, of course, but it is a service to readers.

    Kersten is no dummy: she knows that having independent or bipartisan support strengthens her case (note her mention of the ACLU) more than the support of another Republican or conservative. So in this case, without an overwhelming surface bias (substitute teacher), she likely chose not to check the background of her source. I trust Getz, and her background probably isn’t a big deal, but that doesn’t mean Kersten can safely omit it and retain some semblance of objectivity. (In fact, I would have been rather impressed if Kersten mentioned Getz’s political affiliation but also allowed her to express her general apolitical attitudes, as she did with Brauer.)

  18. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/24/2008 - 11:31 am.


    Maybe so. But for it to be a glaring omission, Republican has to have some specific meaning. That Republicans are relatively rare (30% of the electorare) and those who seek College Republican office are even rarer, doesn’t make it a glaring omission.

    Republicans, College Republicans, and even potential leaders of College Republicans believe many things that are not neatly classified as being prejudiced against an allegedly religious charter school. Some very important Republican ideas would actually be favorable to such a school, e.g., vouchers and school choice.

    The connection is too attenuated to be some glaring omission.

  19. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/24/2008 - 02:03 pm.

    Peter: I think you are confusing issues. I’m not ascribing specific views or reactions to a total group — that’s virtually impossible, even with very small groups (try ascribing my wife’s . And I don’t know that anybody called it a “glaring omission” but it is an omission which improves the appearance of Kersten’s arguments.

    I don’t even know why this is a debate: Kersten is an opinion columnist, not a reporter. Opinion columnists are going to disclose or not disclose information in the manner that best suits their opinion. But that doesn’t mean we can’t call them on it. I’d do the same for Nick Coleman if I had actually bothered to read a Nick Coleman column recently!

  20. Submitted by Daniel Lynx Bernard on 05/16/2008 - 10:22 pm.

    She sees conspiracy whenever Muslims enter the public realm. But this time was different. With no substantiation, she made serious allegations that damaged the reputations of honorable educators and brought death threats for the school.

    We should not stand for that. It’s time to put the Star Tribune management on the spot about the damage that Kersten is doing.

    Please sign and forward this petition:

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