Sunday, June 22, 2008

Parochial Charter Schools in Minnesota


Guarding the perimeter,

protecting the freedom

I support prayer and am in favor of school but I don't think they should be part of the same phrase. 'Prayer in school' makes me nervous. Each prayer sings of traditions and beliefs that may be wildly dissimilar. We want to protect the right to hold these wildly dissimilar beliefs. So how can a public school favor one church's prayer over another?

I was raised as a JFK Catholic in the day when separation of church and state was thought of as the bedrock of constitutional conservatism. If you wanted to pray in school, you put on your squeaky uniform corduroys and attended St. Thomas More Catholic Elementary School in Alhambra, Calif., with tuition paid by your parents. I prayed a lot at St. Thomas More, but our Catholic prez, bowing to the wishes of conservative Protestants, vowed to keep the sacred and secular far apart.

Today, prayer in school and faith-based government programming is conservative constitutional bedrock. This month, President Bush met in the Vatican to discuss world affairs with the Roman Catholic pope — the same leader JFK had to keep his distance from.

In Bush's first term, the U.S. Department of Education issued a rule that orders schools to allow students to engage in voluntary, non-class-time prayer. Prayer in schools, it seems, is now the law of the land. So is Bible reading, saying grace in the cafeteria or gathering at the flagpole for vespers. And teachers may participate, as long as they are not leading the choir.

I think we can stipulate that the favored prayer in most American schools, and of those wielding the political might right now, would sing of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Hold that thought while we take a detour to Inver Grove Heights. The issue has come to light there not because students are discussing the Gospels at lunch but because they are bowing in the direction of Mecca.

The state investigated a publicly funded charter school that serves a predominantly Muslim population. It did so because Star-Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten attacked the school as a front for Islamic indoctrination. She reiterated her charges last weekend on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

The Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, or TiZA, is paid for by the taxpayers and has a strong connection to the Muslim religion. It shares space with an Islamic religious group, has daily prayer in the classroom, conducts weekly half-hour communal prayer events in the gymnasium and offers optional, after-school instruction in the Quran, along with secular activities such as the Boy Scouts.

Officials from the state education department visited TiZA. They concluded the school was largely complying with the law. The Bush administration rule was cited in the state's report; because the prayer was "voluntary," it was mostly OK. Two areas of concern were the length of the 30-minute communal prayer service and the fact that school buses do not leave until the after-school program is finished. TiZA was told to make changes.

It appears that, with some adjustments, TiZA can satisfy concerns of the state. Joe Nathan, a charter school expert who heads the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, visited TiZA after the controversy arose.

Nathan said in his view, TiZA is well within the rules. "In part because of the national fury over 9/11, and resentment about oil prices, some people have gone a little nuts in dealing with this little school that's enormously successful,'' Nathan said.

Islam does not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. There are parts of the Muslim world where the Quran is read as a call to arms against America. Are we worried that TiZA blurs the line between church and state, or are we worried that the church in question is a threat to our state?

In 2003, supporters of Ascension Catholic elementary school in North Minneapolis decided to launch a public charter school on church property. The new school would be called "Ascension Academy." It would serve grades 9-12, picking up where Ascension Catholic left off. The principal of Ascension Catholic (private) would run Ascension Academy (public).

One could assume that a few prayers might drift over from the Catholic elementary school to the public high school. Both were to be on parish grounds and both were named for the moment when Jesus Christ's divinity was sealed by his ascension into heaven.

Here's what critical state officials who reviewed the charter school application had to say:

"This school seems more like a private religious school than a public high school... There appears to be very strong religious undertones to this proposed school's mission/vision ... this again sounds like a private school with a very early enrollment date to assure the students who are attending an existing school that they will be students in the new charter school."

The sponsoring group addressed the concerns, and Ascension Academy's charter was approved. According to Morgan Brown, assistant state education commissioner, the dual role of the principal has since ended and the school has attracted no religious complaints.

In Minnesota, charter schools have fewer restrictions than other public schools. Leasing space from churches — whether it's the Muslim American Society of Minnesota or the Catholic Archdiocese — is acceptable under state policy. And Nathan and state officials say there have been few complaints about charter schools crossing the line.

The prayers at TiZA make me nervous. Not because we should fear praying Muslims, but because we want Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Methodists and every other religious group to have the absolute right to pray and worship according to their own traditions and beliefs.

Religion is built on those beliefs. But religions don't believe the same stuff. Their beliefs not only conflict, they contend. The Ascension of Jesus — forgive me, St. Thomas More — is a fiction to Muslims and Jews. The Angel Moroni of the Book of Mormon is a farmer's prank to many Christian denominations. Kosher, halal, fish-on-Fridays, nuns' habits and the hijab — all refer to discrete beliefs that have caused bloodshed for centuries.

Except in America. We have created peaceful space for all beliefs by making sure no single faith is preferred by government. Or at least, we have tried to. That space is what we call "freedom of religion." It must be guarded zealously and its perimeters secured against incursions by "faith-based" armies currently on the march.

It took a group of praying Muslim children to remind us of this. If we ask whether TiZA is a madrassa, we must ask if Ascension Academy is a Catholic prep. The answer from public officials is that neither crosses the line. But to an old JFK Catholic, it sure looks like the line has moved.

Jim Ragsdale is an editorial writer at the Pioneer Press. His e-mail address is

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