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Can religion, charter schools coexist?

Number of 'religious charter schools' continues to grow — along with criticism

Published: Saturday, Dec. 17 2011 1:00 p.m. MST

Teaching assistant Yasmin Mohammed helps young students with math exercises during summer school at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA).

Richard Tsong-taatarii, Star Tribune

In a worn-down Minnesota neighborhood, perched at the top of a steep hill not far from the Mississippi River, sits a low-slung, brown brick school. Today, the school is a mostly forgotten place, abandoned by its former tenant and taken up by another.

When the school first opened in 2003, it quickly gained attention for its success in pulling above average test scores from a student population where 90 percent of the children were at the poverty level. And then the controversy began.

The school was called the Tarek Ibn Zayed Academy (TiZA), named for the medieval general of Morocco who defeated the Visigoths and ruled Spain starting in 711. It attracted an extensive waiting list of immigrant families, the majority from the Middle East and Africa.

Yet just as TiZA made a name for itself academically, the controversy began to stir around its tie to Islam. The principal of the school, Asad Zaman, was a prominent local imam, or Muslim religious leader, and also a founding member of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, an organization that shared a building with TiZA. It was estimated that more than 90 percent of the student body were Muslim. Daily Arabic lessons were part of the curriculum. Critics said the line between church and state was just too blurry.

So it was that Minnesota, home of the first charter schools, would once again be the center of a new controversy: the charter school that tries to walk that delicate line between religion and culture. TiZA is now shut down and embroiled in a protracted legal fight with the ACLU. The case could be a harbinger of what's to come for other charter schools that have ties to religious groups, says Michael McConnell, a former federal judge who represented TiZA in the case.

THE RISE OF RELIGIOUS CHARTER SCHOOLS

There has been a veritable explosion of charter schools over the past two decades, and riding that trend are charter schools founded or authorized by a religious or cultural organization. The issue of religion in schools has always been a hot-button topic, and the rise of charter schools that tie themselves to a certain ethnic or religious group introduces a new shade of complication to public schooling.

Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational leadership at Fordham University, has labeled these "religious charter schools," a term that rankles many in public education. According to Cooper, a religious charter school is funded by the state but is founded, supported or connected to a religious organization. He cites many examples of these religious charter schools, from Florida's Ben Gamla schools that teach Hebrew to the proliferation of Greek-teaching charter schools in New York City, some of them situated in former Greek Orthodox churches.

Money largely explains why religious organizations get involved in the charter school movement because it allows them to establish a school that teaches the culture of their beliefs without the financial overhead of a private school. The most drastic example of this was in 2008, when the Archbishop Donald Wuerl converted a number of failing Catholic private schools into charter schools in Washington, D.C.

Cooper, who co-authored the book "Blurring the Lines: Charter, Public, and Private Schools Come Together," sees no problem with the rise of these schools. They draw from churches that have a good relationship with the community, he says, and often they take advantage of space where schools have been shut down, giving parents another free public school option.

"We like to call it the new Golden Mean: the new middle ground, the best of public and private come together to create the best of both for families," he said. "I'm glad we have the separation (of church and state), but I think there can be some coordination."

A VIOLATION OF CHURCH AND STATE?

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