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

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).

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.'”

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.”

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.

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 05/20/2008 - 02:19 pm.

    My take on Brauer:

    In general, Brauer takes the Minnesota Department of Education as the final word on what is going on at the school. That’s fine, but it ignores the possibility that different things happened when the MDE visited. In 9th grade, I remember reading about a young journalist who made his name by exposing bad conditions at a mental hospital. The first visit did not uncover the dirt, it was the second unannounced visit that did it.

    The ACLU’s upcoming report also should not be taken at face value. In this case, the facts are less disputed than the legal interpretation of those facts.

    Kersten’s allegation is that they say one thing publicly, but another thing privately. That MDE reviewed their brochure and their library does not disprove anything. Did MDE review their pronouncements to Muslim audiences?

    It is happening just as Amanda Getz reported, apparently. The question is what the legal ramifications are. It also could be criticized as old news, but none of the barbs aimed at Kersten alleged that. On the contrary, Kersten’s critics hinted that the charges must be untrue.

    To paraphrase, “We only violate the Constitution on Fridays.” Interesting that graduation prayers that happen only yearly and football game prayers that happen on…Fridays…have not escaped Constitutional scrutiny. Kersten’s critics would have more credibility if they conceded that this single point is a big deal.

    In addition to determining the facts on the ground, there is also a legal question as to how impressionable the kids are.

    The bussing situation kind of supports Getz’s allegations. It is open to interpretation what effect the bussing (combined with the Friday prayers, and the washing) has on the voluntary nature of the after-school program.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/20/2008 - 11:05 am.

    Katherine Kersten is a regular embarrassment for the Star Tribune. It’s a like a twice-a- week reminder that the newspaper doesn’t care about journalism or ethics or facts, only satisfying the right-wing nutcases who apparently have scared the newspaper management into believing that they buy an inordinate number of newspapers. Either that or the management love the hordes of letters that roll in telling Kersten off each week.

    Time and time again, Kersten has been proven wrong by the very people she is interviewing and supposedly telling their story. There have been at least three situations in which letters or op ed pieces have to pour out 10 inches or more of copy to show where Kersten went over the line. Rarely, as again in this case, has she been even remotely proven right. As this scorecard shows, even bad baseball players hit better than 0.181, which is what she did with this flaming piece of unsupported garbage.

    The problem with finding a conservative columnists is, frankly, almost all of them are complete nuts. They live in their own fantasy world of left-wing conspirators and perceived slights. Now the Strib just has an over-educated, living clueless proof of it getting inch after inch of copy.

  3. Submitted by Aaron Landry on 05/19/2008 - 08:50 pm.

    There’s a bunch of dumb buzz around this story… thanks for being one of the people that’s actually being a journalist about it. I appreciate it.

  4. Submitted by Ed Day on 05/19/2008 - 11:31 pm.

    Aaron, if you want some real buzz on this topic, check out the reader comments from the Strib story. Some commenters seem to believe the MDE findings prove that TIZA is a terrorist training ground.

    Even more preposterously, some comments assert that the MDE findings vindicate Kersten as a journalist and give her high kudos for her “scoop.” Yeah, but only if reading Minnesota Monthly and using selective quotes as the basis for a column about a school that’s been operating for several years is a scoop. Good thing she wasn’t “indoctrinated” as a “journalist,” otherwise Katherine might have asked the MDE for a roster of charter schools and “investigated” TIZA a couple years ago.

    “Katherine” also might have “learned” that the overuse of “quotation marks” is “obnoxious” and often considered “lazy” writing.

  5. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 05/20/2008 - 05:21 pm.

    Normally I’m for personal responsibility, but I blame your website’s lack of a spelling/grammar function for my error.

    “If it was that transparent…” Shouldn’t that be “were”?

    Sorry. Just wildly lashing out in my embarrassment.

    On the substance, my point about how impressionable the kids are is part of the Establishment Clause legal analysis in school cases generally. That’s partially why public high school vouchers are treated differently than, say, Pell Grants for college students. So the voluntary/involuntary issue may turn on the age of the kids. Whether a Court becomes involved may turn on the issue of standing. Which parent of which kid at TIZA is going to sue?

    Finally, you are on solid ground as a professional to say that Kathy went too far. But it is a bit of a stretch (something you accuse her of) to say that the Department of Education for once and for all proved her wrong.

  6. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/20/2008 - 05:13 pm.

    Peter, for the record, the Dept. of Education has made five visits to TIZA since 2004, including an unannounced inspection on a 2008 Friday, plus many non-investigatory visits.

    Remember, too, that there have been no complaints against TIZA from the public, until Getz came forward. Hardly a mental-health hospital track record.

    Kersten is not just relying on what TIZA tells Muslims. The first paragraph of the story sets up this later quote; she flatly accuses it of being an Islamic religious school, funded by taxpayers. If it was that transparent, you think there’d be some evidence in classroom instruction. None has turned up so far.

    As for ritual washing, I think yours is an extremely tight reading. KK clearly meant this to be impermissible washing. (She seems to fixate on it; see her MCTC columns.) Her insinuation was Getz was being asked to do something wrong. The ed dept has twice said it’s allowed, in 2004 and clearly in the 2008 report. Context really is everything.

    No one has ruled the Friday activities unconstitutional. The Ed Dept noted problems that create confusion and the appearance of problems (some related to non-religious length-of-instruction-day issues) but their advice struck me as a preventative action; no one has made a ruling.

    And KK defenders must acknowledge that TIZA pulls off prayer in a constitutional manner – or at least one that does not trip the Ed Dept’s trigger – four days a week.

    If there’s a legal question about impressionable kids, bring it. But no one has. So the insinuation that TIZA is somehow wrong is unfair. I suspect if a suit was brought, lots of Christian-led prayer in public schools would be voided. There, schools and courts allow it after the school day; TIZA takes such non-instructional time during the school day because of the Muslim prayer calendar. The Dept has explicitly ruled this ok, and it makes objective sense if you think about it.

    The busing (one s; two is kissing) kind of doesn’t support Getz. The Dept flatly contradicted her that Muslim/Islam Studies the only activity, that it’s TIZA run, and her insinuation that it was a required part of the school day. My kid goes to Orchestra after school, we pay money for it, and he rides home on school buses. The difference, according to the Dept, is that TIZA doesn’t run buses immediately after school. (One reason is that most kids do afterschool stuff, including Boy/Girl Scouts.) If ran another set of buses, too, this wouldn’t be a problem.

    Getz’s limited perspective might not be her fault; she was only reporting what she saw that day. That’s why it’s up to a journalist to vet facts, not plug them into a paint-by-numbers hit piece.

    I think my piece acknowledges the exculpatory factors, and at one point, explicitly lets readers choose evenly between KK and the Ed Dept.

    But this isn’t a school that’s unwatched – would that mental hospitals get such vetting. So as a professional, I think I’m on solid ground saying she went too far.

  7. Submitted by Sam Rodgers on 05/20/2008 - 05:17 pm.

    I think the key thing about why this is a big deal is that the column bent and twisted facts and incited some of the individuals to call in threats and force the school to increase security. That is exactly the sort of externality that the Trib’s editorial staff needs to consider when they allow Kersten or any other columnist to grind an ax.

  8. Submitted by Kathy Johnson on 05/20/2008 - 10:25 pm.

    I believe that Asad Zaman, executive director of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights was LYING when he said that he had no idea how to fly the American Flag. And, I believe the former Marine whos daugther attends TIZA probably would have over the past 5 years helped him learn how to fly the American flag if he had asked.

    I believe that TIZA’s ED Asad Zaman ATTACKED the reporter with the intent of injuring him and he took the man’s camera away.

    I believe that a publicly funded school should NOT allow ritual washing, ritual praying, and an Imam at the school all day long: OR: Do you believe that your local Non-charter public school should have Holy Water to dunk your finger in at each school entrance and a Catholic Priest hanging out in the hallways all day during the school day?

    Unfounded my foot! So, Ms. Kersten is telling lies. The substitute teacher is telling lies. Yet, we MUST believe that Mr. Zaman has NO IDEA how to fly a flag up a flag pole.

    IF this were Christian charter school or a Morman CHarter school or a Baptist Charter school liberals would SCREAM: SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE AND CALL OUT THE ACLU TO SUE!!!!! Yet, your cultural diversity, and love of multiculturalism, and your tolerance to all religions BUT CHRISTIAN prevents your from saying a word.

    And to all of you make love not war bumper sticker having, WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER, anti-violence liberals: Yet you support Mr. Zaman socking the camera man in the face and hurting his back and neck and arms? I guess maybe violence is the answer for you sometimes, huh?

  9. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/20/2008 - 10:41 pm.

    Kathy – who, precisely, supports violence here? Name names and cite quotes.

    Not even KSTP’s site says their guy was socked in the face, BTW.

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