What is to be done?

One might say that the K-8 Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) in a suburb of the Twin Cities is an Islamic school in all but name, except that the name is of course Islamic. Tarek ibn Ziyad was the Muslim conqueror of Spain. As for the rest of the school, all or almost all of its students are Muslim, its principal is an imam, its sponsor is Islamic Relief-USA, and it sits in a building owned by, and shared with, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota as well as its Al-Aman Mosque.
TIZA’s calendar and days are set up to accommodate Muslim students. School breaks for prayers at 1:00 in the carpeted prayer area in the middle of the school. TIZA’s cafeteria is halal. Arabic as a second language is mandatory. According to a document filed by TIZA with the Minnesota Department of Education, it provides after-school (religious) instruction “conducted by various non-profit organizations” that is the main reason given by 77 percent of parents for sending their children to TIZA. The after-school instruction is overwhelmingly the primary reason given by parents for sending their children to TIZA.
According to Sunday’s Star Tribune column by Katherine Kersten, after-school religious instruction is provided by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. School buses wait outside the school for the students to complete their after-school religious instruction at the end of the day. The Muslim American Society of Minnesota is perhaps best known as the proponent of the fatwa prohibiting Muslim taxi drivers from transporting travelers carrying alcohol from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
TIZA has been the subject of friendly articles in the local press that note the school’s Islamic character. In November 2004, Tammy Oseid noted in an admiring St. Paul Pioneer Press article that the school “resembles the private Al-Amal Islam School” in suburban Minneapolis. In March 2007 Minnesota Monthly’s Kevin Featherly noted that “a visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school.”
But TIZA is a charter or independent public school. As a public school, supported by taxpayer funds, it is supposed neither to endorse nor encourage Islam. Yet the school’s Islamic character is seemingly overwhelming and undeniable.
Yesterday I spoke with Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown of the Minnesota Department of Education regarding TIZA. Commissioner Brown just returned to the department last week after a stint as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education for the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the Department of Education in Washington, DC. Before leaving for Washington in 2006, Morgan had served as served as the Minnesota Department of Education’s Director of the Division of School Choice and Innovation since 2003.
Morgan is a former Claremont Institute Publius Fellow, former Senior Fellow for Education Policy for the Center of the American Experiment (where I first met him), and a passionate advocate of school choice. Morgan is familiar with TIZA by virtue of his previous tenure with the Minnesota Department of Education. I asked him how TIZA differed from a private parochial or religious school like the Al-Amal School.
In distinguishing TIZA from Al-Amal, Morgan referred to religious elements in the instructional program of Al-Amal as well as the rigid sex segregation he had observed at Al-Amal when he had visited the school. He said that “curriculum and instruction are entirely different.” Nevertheless, TIZA simply relegates religious instruction to the end of the school day at 3:30 when it is provided by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.
Does it really make a difference in substance if the religious instruction takes place at 3:30 “after” school rather than at 2:30 before the bell rings? It does, even though the distinction in TIZA’s case appears to be a mere formality. (In addition, TIZA’s charter school application provided that “[s]tudents will be assigned seating. Boys and girls will be separated, with boys on one side of a class and girls on the other.” But I don’t know if TIZA’s assigned seating plan was disapproved or if it has been carried out.)
Morgan commented that so long as prayer is voluntary and not led by school officials, it does not detract from the school’s nonsectarian character. He had no knowledge of after-school instruction, but so long as it was voluntary and the school afforded equal access to other providers, that too would be in keeping with the school’s nonsectarian character. He added that the department was following up on Kersten’s Sunday column with a site visit and a letter to TIZA’s principal inquiring into the issues it raised, as it had done in 2004 following Tammy Oseid’s Pioneer Press article.
Muslim activists have found a workable seam in the purported separation of church and state in Minnesota. One does not need to engage in much speculation to foresee the day when Minnesota’s burgeoning Muslim population will be educated in separate charter schools like TIZA at taxpayers’ expense, where they will receive religious instruction courtesy of the likes of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.
What is an opponent of the phenomenon represented by TIZA to do? If TIZA’s arrangement passes muster with state authorities, an opponent is left with two options. One must either await judicial intervention at the behest of some party with standing to bring a lawsuit raising the obvious First Amendment issues, or one must work for the demise of charter schools.