Storm brewing between state officials and TiZA school

Last week, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) and the Minnesota Department of Education appeared to reach an understanding in the controversy over whether Islam is being promoted at this public school.

But behind the scenes, a storm may be brewing.

TiZA officials have "taken a confrontational road" in discussions with the department, according to Deputy MDE Commissioner Chas Anderson, the department's No. 2 official.

Anderson says that the two sides have not yet reached an agreement on one key issue and that MDE will be closely monitoring TiZA's performance in future months.

TiZA is a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights, financed by taxpayers. Its students have scored well on standardized tests. But like all public schools, it may not encourage or endorse religion, or favor one religion over another.

A number of facts raise questions about TiZA on this score. Its executive director, Asad Zaman, is an imam, or Muslim religious leader. The school shares a building with a mosque and the Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society, which the Chicago Tribune has described as the American branch of the Muslim Brotherhood -- "the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group."

Most of TiZA's students are Muslim, many from low-income immigrant families. The school breaks daily for prayer, its cafeteria serves halal food (permissible under Islamic law), and Arabic is a required subject.

School buses do not leave until after-school Muslim Studies classes, which many students attend, have ended for the day.

Last spring, MDE opened an investigation after press reports raised questions about whether TiZA has been blurring the church/state line. The investigation focused on the school's 30-minute Friday communal prayer event, among other issues. The service -- led by adults -- has been conducted on school premises, and both students and teachers have attended.

In a report issued in May, the MDE concluded that TiZA's Friday prayer event violated the law and since then has been working with the school to make changes.

"We wanted TiZA to do Friday prayers the way all other public schools" handle similar activities -- "as release time, under state law," said Anderson. In a release-time arrangement, students move off-site for religious activities.

But TiZA said no, according to Anderson. Instead, the school will continue to hold Friday prayer on its premises. Students will lead prayer and staff will be present only "to ensure student safety," said Zaman in a letter to the MDE.

In a response to Zaman's letter, Anderson wrote complaining of what she called the "defensive tone" of the letter in which he set forth the school's intentions. "It is inaccurate for TiZA to imply that MDE's legal concerns regarding the school's operations ... were unfounded," she wrote, "and it is of utmost importance that TiZA take seriously its responsibility to comply with applicable state and federal laws."

TiZA now says it will shorten Friday prayers -- whose length has been a potential concern because of instructional time requirements -- though it has not said by how much.

MDE has agreed that TiZA's new arrangement on after-school bus transportation will bring the school into legal compliance on that issue. But the department is highly skeptical that TiZA's proposed arrangement for on-site, student-led Friday prayers will work.

Track the situation closely

We are "very troubled by it," said Anderson in an interview. "This may look good on paper. But how can you have an assembly with older students in charge of younger students?" she said. MDE plans to track the situation closely and conduct site visits.

Asked to respond to MDE's continuing concerns, the school issued a statement through spokesman Blois Olson saying: "TiZA Academy has reached agreement with the Department of Education ... and will continue to work with the department to ensure that we continue to be in compliance with all state and federal laws."

While TiZA and the department don't agree about the Friday prayer service -- even over whether they have an agreement on it -- there are other religious accommodations at the school that raise questions. In its May report, for example, MDE said that regularly scheduled daily prayers at TiZA appear to pass legal muster because they are "voluntary and student-led."

But imagine the reaction if prayer time -- reflecting only one faith -- were built into the schedule at, say, Stillwater Junior High.

Asked if other public schools would be allowed to accommodate religion the way that TiZA accommodates Islam, Anderson said: "We sought guidance, we want guidance" from federal sources and the Minnesota attorney general, "but no one will give us a black and white answer."

MDE says there are broader questions at issue. "This upcoming legislative session may be an appropriate forum" for "a serious discussion about the appropriateness of sectarian organizations sponsoring publicly-funded nonsectarian charter schools in the first place," said Anderson in a statement Monday.

For now, she added, "This is a gray area. School authorities at TiZA know it's a gray area, and they are walking right up to and over that line."

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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