Minnesota's state-funded madrassa

Minnesota doesn’t have school vouchers, but we have a fairly strong charter-school presence. In fact, the Little Admiral attends a foreign-language immersion charter school which does a remarkable job with its students. Charter schools are public schools, however, and cannot offer religious-based curricula. As Katherine Kersten discovers, that applies to every religion but one, apparently:

Recently, I wrote about Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. Charter schools are public schools and by law must not endorse or promote religion.

Evidence suggests, however, that TIZA is an Islamic school, funded by Minnesota taxpayers.

TIZA has many characteristics that suggest a religious school. It shares the headquarters building of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, whose mission is “establishing Islam in Minnesota.” The building also houses a mosque. TIZA’s executive director, Asad Zaman, is a Muslim imam, or religious leader, and its sponsor is an organization called Islamic Relief.

Students pray daily, the cafeteria serves halal food – permissible under Islamic law — and “Islamic Studies” is offered at the end of the school day.

One reason that school-choice opponents offer for their refusal to consider school vouchers is the choice some parents might make to have their children attend parochial schools. They claim that would violate the separation of church and state by funneling state money to religious-based education. The flaw in that argument is that vouchers return money to parents normally confiscated to pay for the education of their children. It’s only the state’s money if one dismisses the fact that the taxpayer earns their income rather than treating it as an allocation from the government.

However, in this case, the state directly funds the school from its education budget. That means that the normal rules of public schools and religion should apply: no organized prayer, no religious instruction, and no connections to religious organizations. TIZA violates all of these rules, and more. Kersten takes the testimony of a substitute teacher who watched school assemblies based on Islamic prayer, having to supervise ritual washings, and the study of the Koran.

Imagine the outcry that would occur if any other public school asked students to study the Bible, even for a comparative literature course. Activists would shriek about the impending theocracy of the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton administration, and lawsuits would fly faster than anyone could say Pat Robertson.

Where is the state of Minnesota on all of this? They assured Kersten that they regularly visit charter schools like TIZA to ensure compliance with public school regulations. They have only conducted three such probes in the past 5 years — two during the 2003-4 school year and one in 2007. The school told state officials that the prayer and study of Islam was “voluntary”, but the teacher’s experience shows that it is incorporated into the curriculum of TIZA. Moreover, if schools offer “voluntary” programs in a religion, they have to offer them in all religions, which TIZA most certainly does not do.

The ACLU of Minnesota has started an investigation of its own into TIZA. The state’s Department of Education says they’ll now do the same. It’s time someone called a halt to taxpayer-sponsored madrassas in Minnesota, or else allow state funding for parochial schools of all stripes.  (h/t: HA reader Cory)