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Kersten’s latest TIZA blast: the missing context

Katherine Kersten is the self-appointed prosecutor of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy and I am the self-appointed prosecutor of Kersten. With the fall school bell ringing, Kersten again went off on the Inver Grove Heights charter school in today’s Strib, and that means a new Reality Check from me.

When last seen before summer break, Kersten had thrown out a series of charges that the Arabic language charter school was impermissibly inculcating Islam on the taxpayer’s dime. She alleged the curriculum was sub-rosa religious, there was illicit ritual foot-washing, and that students were forced to pray to Allah both during and after school.

In the end, the Minnesota Department of Education found all that baseless. However, the state noted problems with a voluntary Friday prayer that was too long and adult-led, and also said buses should leave after the school day, not following extracurricular activities.

Saturday might have been a bad day in the Kersten household when Katherine picked up her own paper to read that TIZA had addressed the sore points to the department’s satisfaction. The prayer would be shortened, adults would only monitor the proceedings and parents would be reimbursed if they needed after-school transportation.

What to do? Wait a couple of days, and then allege, “Behind the scenes, a storm is brewing.”

To be fair to Kersten, she backstopped this contention with reporting — an interview with Deputy Education Commissioner Chas Anderson, who sounded pretty irked.

The latest episode began in late August, when TIZA officials laid out their compliance plans in a letter to the department. Along the way, they questioned the legal underpinnings of the department’s May objections.

In response, Anderson wrote, “The department found the defensive tone of TIZA’s letter surprising … It is inaccurate for TIZA to imply that [Ed Department] concerns … were unfounded and it is of utmost importance that TIZA take seriously its responsibility to comply with applicable state and federal laws.”

Anderson went on to tell Kersten she is “very troubled” by TIZA’s insistence on prayer during the school day  and doubts student-run prayer can truly be led by students.

It all sounds pretty fractious — until you read letters in full, which neither Kersten nor the Strib provide.

Read TIZA’s missive (PDF) — it isn’t long — and judge for yourself. Here’s how the “defensive” letter begins:

“Thank you for the professionalism of your staff during the recent visits. … Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy takes seriously the concerns raised in your report. We believe that we have been in complete compliance with the law in the prior year. Since we have a slightly different understanding of the relevant laws, please allow us to explain our understanding of the relevant laws.”

To me, the letter patiently and respectfully makes its case, then offers to make the changes anyway. Does this sound like a “defensive” blow-off?:

“We take seriously the concerns raised in your report. We are also mindful of the enormous hysteria generated by certain individuals in the media and the death threats that resulted from them. We do not look forward to such a situation in the future.”

Things get even less sensational when you read the full Ed Department communication (PDF).

Yes, Anderson asserts her view of TIZA’s tone — which to me seems more defensive than TIZA’s letter. Even if not, Kersten is cherrypicking the least material paragraph in the communication. Here’s the money sentence:

“In general, MDE finds that TIZA’s plans for afterschool transportation and Friday prayer may be in compliance with the law, subject to confirmation of the Department’s understandings regarding Friday prayer set forth below.”

Those understandings basically underscore, rather than challenge, TIZA’s plan. It’s hard to read the Ed Department’s letter as anything other than acknowledgment that TIZA’s plan is legal.

(You may have noted the department only says  TIZA “may be” in compliance with the law. Too squishy? If you’re going to go there, consider this: Kersten writes “TIZA’s Friday prayer event violated the law,” but a May Ed Department letter (PDF) states the prayer “does not appear to satisfy” the law. If TIZA’s compliance is on shaky ground, so is Kersten’s assertion.)

The bottom line: TIZA offers a plan, and the Ed Department agrees, subject to reasonable verification.

The Strib has occasionally provided supporting documentation for past Kersten columns, but it really needs to make that a habit when TIZA is involved. By definition, columnists aren’t your go-to folks for context, but given anti-Muslim fervor and acknowledged death threats, this is an especially hot button, punched for a story that seems to shrink as the weeks roll by.

(As has been true in the past, TIZA screws up by not engaging Kersten beyond a bland statement that, frankly, makes the school’s case look weaker than the documentation suggests.)
There is, of course, delicious irony in Kersten, a small-government conservative, championing an offended bureaucrat. Crusades sometimes require marriages of convenience.

That’s not the column’s biggest irony, however: in her penultimate paragraph, Kersten approvingly quotes an Ed Department statement that “this upcoming legislative session may be an appropriate forum” for “a serious discussion about the appropriateness of sectarian organizations sponsoring publicly funded charter schools in the first place.”

Given that the bulk of those charters are Christian-sponsored ones Kersten has written about approvingly in the past, be careful what you wish for, Kate.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Patrick Donnelly on 09/11/2008 - 02:22 am.

    David — well done, as usual. I read the column in question and, aside from rolling my eyes at KK’s typical knee-jerk reaction to anything that remotely smells controversial about local Muslims, I also noted one Strib policy that merits further investigation.

    Have you looked into the newspaper’s policy governing which articles allow for comments on its website and which do not? It seems logical that either you’d allow readers to comment on all articles or none of them. Why do they pick and choose? Is there an official policy? Is there a comment czar who makes these calls? And how does this policy compare to those of other major-market daily newspapers/websites?

    If you’ve covered this angle before and I missed it, I apologize. It just seems like somebody ought to ask a few questions to the right people.

  2. Submitted by Craig Westover on 09/11/2008 - 09:40 am.

    David –

    Have you been to either Tiza or Seven Hills Academy? I ask because while I don’t have any personal experience with Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, I have quite a bit of first-hand knowledge of Al-Amal, which has been mentioned in Kersten articles. I’ve written about the school in the Pioneer Press and in a comment at the old Minnesota Monitor site – I regard it as an outstanding example of how religion ought to be dealt with in education — private schools or public charters.

    The purpose of Al-Amal is to integrate its students into American society without loss of their Islamic identity. The school has students from different ethnic backgrounds speaking some 20 different dialects from countries ranging from monarchies, to Islamic theocracies, to democracies. Both Shiite and Sunni students attend Al-Amal.

    Students use the same American history textbooks as my kids used, study American government and yes, George Washington is the father of their country. Although evolution is contrary to fundamental Islamic teaching, it is part of the science curriculum. As one administrator told me, “We cannot expect our people to be leaders if they do not understand current scientific thought.”

    Students also study their Islamic heritage; however, the religious curriculum they follow was written by American-Muslims and emphasizes the commonalities as well as contrasts with Western thought.

    The administration at Tiza seems a bit more militant and defensive, but from people in the Muslim community I spoken with, the educational philosophy is much the same as at Al-Amal.

    I also was an early participant with the board of Seven Hills Classical Academy, which Kersten wrote about in the column you reference. To imply Seven Hills is a Christian school (yes, it is sponsored by Friends of Ascension), or to imply that most Charter schools are “Christian schools” is more anti-Kersten than accurate.

    I am a big believer in and supporter of charter schools, but frankly, of the 120-plus charters in Minnesota, I doubt I could find more than a couple dozen with the academic rigor I’d choose for my kids. There are an awful lot of charters with progressive education models. And while I don’t think that is the best way to educate kids, the diversity of educational options offered by charters in general is nothing but good for society as a whole. The one-size-fits-all model of public education simply doesn’t work in a diverse society — a concept progressives can’t get their minds around.

    But back to Seven Hills. Seven Hills uses the Core Knowledge curriculum popularized by J.D. Hirsch, which emphasizes understanding Western Culture as a foundation for learning about other cultures. If you want to contrast the Core Knowledge approach with progressive “multiculturalism,” the Core Knowledge approach prepares students to take their place in a diverse world and maintain their Western heritage – much like the goal Al-Amal has for its students. Multiculturalism, in effect, desires to do away with cultural distinctions.

    Seven Hills is housed in a 1960s-era elementary school that is owned and connected to a Christian church in Bloomington. Ironically, when the Seven Hills board was negotiating for the space, a concern of the church was that the Core Knowledge curriculum included evolution and the big bang theory in science studies.

    The point is, simply slapping Kersten upside the head (as much as she needs it from time to time) doesn’t do much to further discussion of separation of church and state, and implying that classical academies are simply shells for pushing Christianity because of their emphasis on Western civilization is misleading at best. What’s the objective here? Is to provide kids with an education that adopts them to live in the world they will find themselves in, or it to meet some government standard? When the government determines what is separation of church and state, do we really have a separation?

  3. Submitted by Tricia Cornell on 09/11/2008 - 09:49 am.

    Actually, David, I don’t see any evidence that those classical academies she writes about are church-sponsored. Did I miss something?

  4. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/11/2008 - 03:55 pm.

    #3 – Tricia, several of those schools are sponsored by Friends of Ascension, which, while not a church, refers to a parish in North Minneapolis. I would argue that’s as religious as TIZA’s sponsor, Islamic Relief-USA.

    #4 – Peter, agreed on mutual irony, though in my particular case, I’m agnostic (pardon the pun) on charters. My family is involved with several, and I’ve tended to support school board candidates who want to work with them, not against them.

    The real tie-breaker, though, is that Kersten is the one prosecuting the case, so her hypocrisy is at issue here.

    Kersten has been wrong about many things, though she is smart enough to couch many in insinuation. For example, she noted April 8 that the school claims a secular curriculum, then, as “proof” to the contrary, weaved some crazy thing in about an ad run by a Muslim organization which mentions there was an elementary school in the building. (Even though there are charters in churches, sponsored by Christian-affiliate groups like Friends of Ascension, that she would never consider religious.)

    That curriculum claim is NOT a legal dispute – the Ed Department explicitly determined in May that the coursework was secular. There are other examples – mischaracterizing after-school Islamic-activity exclusivity, for one.

    As to why I call it an Arabic charter school – because it is. Students have to learn Arabic, just like at a French-language charter school we would describe as French. Meanwhile, you DON’T have to be Muslim to TIZA, just like you DON’T have to be Catholic to attend one of the Friends of Ascension-sponsored charter schools. I don’t see a reason to discriminate – objectively, especially given the acknowledged secular curriculum, Arabic seems more accurate than Muslim.

    It could be that no other school “blurs” the lines because the ones who might are happily Christian and have their Sabbath on Sunday (conveniently, not a school day). I mean, the Christian workers at Gold’n’Plump probably never faced accommodation issues, but that doesn’t make the Muslim worker wrong for pursuing them – and ultimately winning.

    Society is working through these things and so, as the story shrinks forward, is the Ed Department and TIZA.

    I’ll post a reply to Craig in a separate comment, as this is getting long.

  5. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 09/11/2008 - 01:00 pm.

    David, the problem with “irony” (or hypocrisy) is that it cuts both ways. The left also must be careful what it wishes for. The TIZA model, if successful, could pave the way for more faith-based initiatives or even vouchers. If it were a different religion being promoted, would you be touting their impressive test scores as a reason to stop scrutinizing them?

    I volunteer for a charter school and have knowledge of the charter school movement generally (file that as a full disclosure or a bolster to my credibility, depending on your perspective). I can say that there is nothing in other charter schools that comes close to the blurring of the lines that is happening at TIZA. So there is a difference between Kersten’s accurate assertions about TIZA and your vague insinuations about other unnamed charters.

    In the end, this is not about disputed facts. The whistle blowing substitute teacher and Kathy Kersten accurately reported what is going on at TIZA. The dispute is over the legality of TIZA’s arrangements. That Minnesota Department of Education officials are willing to compromise with TIZA does not end the inquiry. It would not settle the matter even if it were the Minnesota Attorney General’s office issuing a formal legal opinion. Every Establishment Clause case involves a government entity crossing a line with respect to religion. If one government entity, a charter school, gets permission or acquiescence from another government entity, MDE, the final policy still has to comply with First Amendment precedent on religion.

    This is a legal dispute like any other. Potshots at a columnist do not change this. The interesting question is whether it will ever be decided by a court. In the typical prayer/pledge of allegiance case, the parents of a student file suit. Which person with legal standing would want to sue in this case? The parents may send their children to TIZA precisely because it is blurring the lines of religion and government. We will see.

    Finally, I found it interesting that the headline of Kersten’s column called it a “Muslim” charter school, rather than the Brauer-preferred “Arabic.”

  6. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/11/2008 - 04:15 pm.

    Craig – Perhaps it’s not clear from my piece, but I personally have no dog in the church-charter debate. I think some are poorly run, academically and financially, but that’s true of some public systems, too.

    I haven’t visited either school you mention, and only bring Seven Hills up to note the Friends of Ascension sponsorship. To restate this point: I think it’s fine that people of faith want to take a shot at improving secular education – I just don’t think that should be limited to non-Muslims.

    Yes, accusing Kersten of hypocrisy is like shooting fish in a barrel.

    Take, for example, her insinuations about TIZA requiring Arabic when Seven Hills requires Latin. I mean, there’s probably some religious underpinning for each, but there’s a much more obvious cultural one. (And I say this as a Jew who took Latin in a secular school.)

    To answer your question about what do we want our schools to do … One thing that is seldom noted, and that Kersten underplays, is that TIZA is the MOST SPECTACULAR local example of educating kids in poverty. Each year, I play a game with NCLB test scores: I add the poverty rate to the passing rate for math/reading. NO SCHOOL last year did better than TIZA – it was above 80 percent in all three categories. KIPP – another, though secular school Kersten champions – should be as good this year. (And I know KIPP folks personally.)

    And apparently, according to the Ed Dept, TIZA is doing this with a secular curriculum, some prayer accomodation and and afterschool program that includes permissible religious activities.

    Beyond hypocrisy, what seems fundamental to me is that TIZA has been much more accommodating than Kersten has implied. Frankly – and perhaps this is the liberal in me – they have a right to be defensive. Groups like Friends of the Ascension have powerful folks like Bill Cooper going to bat for them, but the Muslims get little protection from the powerful when Kersten’s whip comes down.

    At the very least, she’s unfairly represented the Ed Department’s official views of TIZA at least twice, once in May and now. Peter may downgrade this as a mere legalistic compliance, but frankly, government oversight is about interpreting laws. I’m not THAT small a government guy, but I think this sort of fundamental obedience to the law has been given short-shrift by Kersten and her defenders.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/11/2008 - 09:42 pm.

    Thank you Mr Brauer,

    The item of discussion needing more attention is the “stirring of the pot” being done by the Kersten pieces. Will there again be someone who will use her material to back up an act that will be regretted ? But controversy sells papers so the Strib looks the other way and gladly continues to give her a bi-monthly check. She points her narled finger at “anarchists” but never seems to engage in a deep enough self-examination to notice the simiarities in the results of her work to those she finds to be without forgivness.

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