After two-plus years of legal wrangling, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) charter school is officially out of business as a public school. The complicated story of how it went from an academic star to being shut down by the state offers lessons in church-state conflicts, effective charter school administration and how best to educate a challenged population of students.
TiZA did an outstanding job academically. Its 500 mostly low-income students had top test scores; students in the K-8 program achieved 92 percent proficiency in math and 72 percent proficiency in reading on statewide tests -- even though many were English-language learners.
The school was started in the years just after 9/11, and its leaders understandably felt under attack and defensive as Muslims. School staff say they received threats and had to install security systems. At the same time, there was troubling evidence that school administrators failed to follow state rules and blurred the separation of church and state while receiving public funds.
In 2003, the charter opened its doors to primarily serve children of Muslim immigrants, some of whom were struggling in traditional public schools. State law requires charters to have sponsors, and TiZA selected Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit then based in California. The school leased space from Muslim organizations, including the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN).
Early in 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against some of the school's board members, the state Department of Education and Islamic Relief, alleging that the charter violated the Constitution by using taxpayer money to promote religion. The ACLU also raised conflict-of-interest questions related to how TiZA leaders, MAS-MN and the school's landlords overlapped.
Numerous legal actions, hearings, suits and countersuits ensued. The court rejected TiZA's requests that the ACLU case be dismissed. Earlier this year, the education department and Islamic Relief settled with the ACLU. The department accepted the ACLU's findings of facts, and Islamic Relief agreed to pay $250,000 of ACLU's legal fees.
ACLU Minnesota had filed other church/state actions against schools in the past, but TiZA was its first charter-school case. The ACLU says it is looking into other charter schools in which the line between religious accommodation and religious promotion might have been crossed.
Throughout TiZA's existence, Minnesota charter laws were being challenged and changed -- mostly to provide stronger oversight and to address conflict-of-interest and financial-management issues. TiZA wasn't the only charter school to face tough questions about relationships between board members, landlords and school staffs. State laws were changed to more specifically prohibit such conflicts. Another change in the law prohibits out-of-state sponsors.
TiZA tried to change sponsors (who are now called authorizers), but the state denied its request for a variety of reasons, including the school's and new sponsor's failure to address some conflict-of-interest questions. As of July 1, TiZA was no longer a public school and no longer eligible for state funding.
The school has filed for bankruptcy protection, so the ACLU legal action, originally scheduled for trial in November, is on hold. At this point, many of the 100,000-plus documents in the case are sealed with the court. If the trial proceeds, it would give the public the opportunity to hear the whole story.
In the meantime, an excellent academic program is closed as a public school -- an unfortunate turn of events for the students who were thriving there.
Observers of the school attribute its success to using a variety of research-based approaches to education. For example, teachers had high expectations for students, classrooms were orderly and parents were encouraged to be involved. Many lessons were connected to the students' lives and promoted good citizenship, community involvement and multiculturalism.
TiZA's academic accomplishments should be studied by Minnesota educators for years to come. Despite its shortcomings, the charter program got the academics right, and the lessons to be learned from that success shouldn't be lost with the school's closing. During its eight years, TiZA won federal grants to share its effective curriculum with other schools. Hopefully other Minnesota schools will replicate TiZA's success and avoid its administrative troubles.