The Minnesota Department of Education has received applications for three new taxpayer-funded charter schools.
They include Howard and Mattie Smith Academy, a K-3, 9-12 school proposed for Minneapolis, named for two legendary preachers at Shiloh Temple Church. Another is The Academy, a 10-12 Minneapolis school, and the third is a 7-12 school, St. Paul Rising Sun.
A new charitable organization, Minnesota Education Trust (MET), has applied to sponsor all three schools, and at one point sought to assume sponsorship of a fourth -- the Academy for Food Sciences and Agriculture, whose name evokes Minnesota's heartland. "Minnesota Education Trust" sounds pretty generic, but the name seems to convey a clear sense of the organization's mission.
Or does it?
MET's "principal goals" are set forth in its articles of incorporation, filed with the secretary of state in May 2007. The first goal listed is "to promote the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims and promote understanding between them." Other goals include building a virtuous society and providing education to children and adults. The final goal is to "support schools, community centers, mosques and other organizations that serve the above goals."
Next year, the Department of Education is likely to approve MET's applications.
How can an organization dedicated to promoting religion be qualified to sponsor public schools?
The department is already embroiled in a religion-related controversy at a charter school -- Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) in Inver Grove Heights. TIZA is housed at the headquarters of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, along with a mosque. Its sponsor is Islamic Relief USA, a California-based organization, and TIZA's K-8 students are nearly all Muslim.
In September, the department and TIZA sparred over a Friday prayer service sponsored by the school. Deputy Commissioner Chas Anderson complained that TIZA was "walking right up to and over" the line between accommodation and endorsement of religion.
MET has strong connections to TIZA. For example, the address listed on MET's May 2007 articles of incorporation is that of TIZA and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The building at that address is owned by a corporation listed as a MET subsidiary in a document MET submitted to the Department of Education. Wayne Jennings, who heads MET's school sponsorship committee, serves as liaison between TIZA and its sponsor, Islamic Relief USA.
The controversy at TIZA -- and MET's applications -- may signal the beginning of a troubling trend. Soon, the Department of Education may find itself scrambling to monitor an array of schools with religious affiliations. In the past few years, several churches and a synagogue have approached the department about sponsoring charter schools, according to Anderson.
Under state law, a nonprofit need only fulfill three requirements to qualify as a charter-school sponsor: it must register with the attorney general, join a nonprofit umbrella group and report a year-end fund balance of at least $2 million.
Initially, the Department of Education turned down MET's request to become a sponsor, citing its failure to document the required fund balance. But in July, MET submitted financial statements showing more than $3 million in assets and almost $2 million in income in its first year of operation. The source of these impressive assets and funds is not clear.
In an e-mail, Jennings declined to shed light on this question. MET, he said, "will continue to work with the Department of Education to ensure rules and procedures are followed."
Charter schools have greatly enriched the educational opportunities available to Minnesota kids. The charter movement was born here, and has blossomed into a national phenomenon. It has provided real educational choices for families that can't afford private schools, and many are reaping the rewards.
But if the charter movement is to stay on track, we must have a serious conversation about the growing threat to it posed by entanglement with religious organizations. The conversation should include the Department of Education, the Legislature, educators, school-choice advocates and parents.
If that doesn't happen soon, some of our state's schools are going to have a head-on collision with a federal judge. The ensuing pile-up could damage the entire charter school movement.