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State’s Arabic-school ruling; did Kersten’s claims hold up?

Now that the Minnesota Department of Education issued its findings in an Arabic charter school case, we cross-check Katherine Kersten’s initial allegations. By David Brauer 

In April, Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten accused the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) charter school of “being an Islamic school, funded by Minnesota taxpayers.”

Tody, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) just issued its findings: not so much.

Here’s the department’s own bottom line, from its media release (PDF): “MDE has determined that, with regard to the areas reviewed, most of TIZA’s operations are in compliance with state and federal law.”

Early media reports have focused on two areas where MDE raised concerns. One involves Friday prayers, the other after-school transportation. We’ll get into those specifics in a sec; you can read the department’s full findings here (PDF).

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But given Kersten’s role as the fomenter of discontent, let’s look at the story through this prism: just how many of her accusations held up?

Kersten wrote two columns, one on March 9 and a follow-up April 9, based on the report of substitute teacher Amanda Getz. I’ll offer Kersten’s relevant charges in italics, then present the relevant part of MDE’s findings.

Islamic curriculum
March 9: “Publicly, TIZA emphasizes that it uses standard curricular materials like those found in other public schools. But when addressing Muslim audiences, school officials make the link to Islam clear.”

Today’s finding: “MDE reviewed a sample of TIZA’s curriculum and toured the school library and determined there were no concerns with respect to the law’s requirement that operations be non-sectarian.”

VERDICT: Allegation unfounded. 

Ritual washing
April 9: “Arriving on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, [substitute teaching assistant Getz] was told her duties would include taking her fifth-grade students to the bathroom, four at a time, to perform ‘their ritual washing.'”

The MDE report does not fault TIZA for ritual washing. Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown said this activity was approved in 2004, and two 2008 inspections for today’s findings turned up no problems.

VERDICT: Allegation unfounded.

Adult-led prayer
April 9: “Afterward, Getz said, ‘teachers led kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap … was preparing to lead prayer. Beside him, another man ‘was prostrating himself in prayer on a carpet as students entered.'”

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This is a problem, MDE says. “To the extent Friday communal prayer is organized and led by parents or community members and not students, it may … no longer be the simple ‘accommodation’ of student-initiated and student-led prayer contemplated by the law and the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance.”

April 9: “Prayer does not appear to be spontaneously initiated by students, but rather scheduled, organized and promoted by school authorities.”

MDE explicitly says four-to-five-minute Monday-Thursday prayers “appears to be voluntary and student-led,” and “appear to satisfy applicable legal requirements.”

However, it faults the 30-minute Friday session for interrupting instruction for all students — a possibly impermissible establishment of religion.

VERDICT: Allegation unfounded Monday-Thursday, but supported on Friday. 

Teacher participation in prayer
April 9: “According to federal guidelines on prayer in schools, teachers at a public school cannot participate in prayer with students.”

MDE: “While teachers are forbidden from participating with students while acting in their capacities as TIZA employees, teachers may take part in religious activities ‘where the overall context makes clear they are not participating in their official capacities.'”

The department notes teachers are asked to pray separately Monday-Thursday, but Friday is a holy day and “Muslims share this prayer together.”

However, “While teachers may intend to participate in Friday prayers as citizens and not as employees, the mere fact of teachers praying alongside young elementary school students in the school building during the school day may create the impression that the school is officially endorsing religion.”

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VERDICT: Kersten overstated federal law, but on Friday, her concern is supported.

Involuntary prayer
April 9: “‘The prayer I saw was not voluntary,’ Getz said. ‘The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where pray occurred.'”

MDE says “parent volunteers escort students who wish to pray to and from the prayer area.” Despite other objections, the department says students aren’t required to pray.

VERDICT: Allegation unfounded.

After-school Islamic indoctrination
April 9: “Islamic Studies was also incorporated into the school day. [Said Getz] ‘When I arrived, I was told ‘after school, we have Islamic Studies. … That gave me the impression that Islamic Studies was a subject like any other.’ … Getz did not see evidence of other extra-curricular activity.”

Today’s finding: “MDE determined that the single sectarian after-school activity available for students (Muslim Studies) was entirely voluntary and not provided, organized or coordinated by TIZA. Many students chose to participate in the nonsectarian after-school activities … CARE, Boy Scouts and/or Girl Scouts.”

VERDICT: Allegation unfounded.

Questionable busing
April 9: “TIZA had in effect extended the school day — buses leave only after Islamic Studies is over.”

As noted above, MDE ruled that after-school programs were voluntary.

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However, the department did object to the school’s busing schedule: TIZA only provides bus transportation following after-school programs, but not after school itself. Because most students sign up for the fee-based Muslim Studies program, the busing disparity “could be seen as an impermissible use of state transportation aid,” the department ruled; transportation options must be equivalent.

VERDICT: The “extended” school day allegation is unfounded, but the busing allegation is supported.

Education Department competence
April 9: “The Department of Education has failed to provide the oversight necessary to catch these illegalities, and appears to lack the tools to do so.”

In her April 9 column, Kersten noted that “the district made only three site visits to TIZA in five years.” However, Assistant Commissioner Brown told me there had been many other site visits during the period by department staffers not specifically deployed to investigations.

Following Kersten’s column, department investigators made two new site visits, including an unannounced Friday inspection, and Brown says combining current and past day, he is “quite confident” his department has taken the true measure of TIZA.

VERDICT: Pick who you believe.

The education department didn’t rule on other Kersten innuendos, such as one linking the school’s sponsor to Hamas.

The bottom line, to me, is that Kersten’s overarching concern — illegal Islamic education — is largely unfounded. TIZA’s problems come down to one 30-minute Friday break and changing after-school busing.

Things worth fixing? Definitely. A massively overblown controversy? Definitely.