The lonesome death of TiZA

We’ve written a lot about the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy K-8 public charter school in suburban St. Paul. Given its recent demise, we can write of it in the past tense. It was a school that appears to have been operating illegally at taxpayer expense. You might have said that the school was Islamic in all but name, except that even its name was Islamic.

Among other things, TiZA executive director Asad Zaman is an imam and virtually all of its students were Muslim. As a charter school it was originally sponsored by Islamic Relief USA. The school was housed in a building that was owned by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The study of Arabic was required at the school. The Arabic came in handy for the Koranic studies that follow the regular school day.

As a Star Tribune metro columnist, my friend Katherine Kersten blew the whistle on TiZA in several columns during her tenure at the newspaper. Following up on her columns, the ACLU Minnesota conducted its own investigation. Concluding that TiZA was in fact operating illegally as a religious institution on public funds, the ACLU Minnesota brought a lawsuit in federal court in Minnesota against the school, its sponsor, and the Minnesota Department of Education. The ACLU Minnesota is represented in the lawsuit by Dorsey & Whitney, one of the most prominent law firms in the state.

One of the discoveries made in the case is the fact that the signatures of Islamic Relief USA’s former president were forged on numerous documents submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education between 2002 and 2005. Among the forged signatures was the one on the original affidavit of intent to sponsor a charter school submitted by Islamic Relief USA and subsequent school applications for site and grade expansion.

From TiZA’s behavior in the lawsuit, you might almost think that the school had something to hide. And you would be right. In one motion filed with the court, the Minnesota Department of Education disclosed a few of the items that TiZA had been hiding. Among the department’s discoveries in the litigation was the fact that TiZA had made multiple misrepresentations to the department. These misrepresentations included potential conflicts of interest between TiZA and its sectarian landlord, TiZA’s relationship and shared resources with its sectarian co-tenant, and the sectarian nature of TiZA’s curriculum. According to the department, these misrepresentations formed the basis for the department’s determination that TiZA was operating legally.

According to the department, TiZA’s departure from the straight and narrow came as a surprise. The department sounded a little bit like Captain Renault in Casblanca. It was shocked, shocked to discover that, when its back was turned, Islam had been taught at a school headed by an imam and named for a great Muslim conqueror. Even Inspector Clouseau might have been able to crack this case, at least with a little help from Katherine Kersten.

Earlier this year the ACLU Minnesota settled its claims against Islamic Relief USA and the Minnesota Department of Education. Islamic Relief USA agreed to pay the ACLU $267,500. That’s a lot of dough, and that’s not all. As part of the settlement, Islamic Relief USA also lined up two witnesses, including the group’s founder, to testify on behalf of the ACLU Minnesota at trial. As part of the settlement, the Minnesota Department of Education also agreed to enforce the damn law. It agreed to increase oversight of charter schools, presumably to monitor compliance with basic legal requirements.

As a result of its failure to find a sponsor as required by state law, TiZA failed to open this fall. The ACLU’s case against TiZA nevertheless remains. Despite the blasé media reports on the settlements with the Department of Education and Islamic Relief USA, the ACLU Minnesota obviously obtained some highly interesting evidence in the case. The “stipulation of facts” underlying the settlement has now been approved by the court and unsealed. The ACLU Minnesota has posted relevant documents here.

Thanks to the work of Katherine Kersten, the Star Tribune has owned this story. Yet it cannot have been a pleasant experience for her to have worked on the story while inside an organization that would sooner have served as TiZA’s public relations arm than investigator or whistleblower. In its pathetic editorial postmortem on TiZA, the Star Tribune jumped straight to the ACLU lawsuit without including in its chronology the fact that one of its own writers broke the story. By contrast, the ACLU Minnesota acknowledged Kersten’s role in uncovering the scandal from the outset of the lawsuit. Wouldn’t a genuine newspaper want to tout its key role in the events? Why is this story different from any other story?

Kersten is now a senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment with a biweekly column that appears on the Star Tribune editorial page. In her column today she returns to the TiZA story and briefly mentions her own role in it. Here is Kersten’s understated conclusion:

Why did TiZA get such “kid gloves” treatment? You’d think a public school that received about $25 million in state and federal funds over the years would face some accountability for following the law.

The answer lies in the fact that, in a world where “judging” others is off-limits, one label is still feared: No one wants to be tarred as a “bigot.” And in post-9/11 America, the lowest basement of bigotry is reserved for “Islamophobia.”

[ACLU Minnesota executive director Chuck] Samuelson has experienced this blowback: “The first thing the TiZA people said is we were motivated by racism,” he said in an interview. “They see us as a white organization, so anything we do is racist. The next thing they said is we were religiously bigoted.” Samuelson chuckled. In fact, “If this school had been Catholic, we would have sued them years ago.”

I faced similar allegations as a Star Tribune columnist when I raised questions about TiZA. Rep. Mindy Greiling — then chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee — publicly called on the paper to fire me for “gross distortion of the facts.” TiZA is “a school to be emulated, not hated,” she told the Minnesota Independent.

Thanks to ACLU-MN, those who tried to hold TiZA to the same constitutional standards as other public schools have been vindicated. But charges of anti-Muslim “bigotry” remain a powerful weapon in the hands of those willing to use them in an effort to play by their own rules.

TiZA was, to say the least, a problematic organization. You have to wonder if the school wasn’t run by a guy who should be reflecting on his actions in lockdown somewhere. Instead the Star Tribune signed him up to opine on educational issues as one of its “community voices.” Lately, however, someone at the paper must have gotten around to catching up on the news. The school’s executive director now appears to have gone missing from the Star Tribune’s current roster of Your Voices.

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