Quest for charter schools goes to court

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • August 12, 2009 - 10:19 AM

A nonprofit organization with links to a charter school accused of promoting Islam is battling the state over sponsorship of a different school in Morton, Minn.

The group, Minnesota Education Trust (MET), has applied to oversee at least five new or existing charter schools since 2008, but it has been rejected by the state Education Department every time.

The group has taken the dispute to Ramsey County District Court, where a hearing is set for Thursday, in its quest to compel state officials to approve a recent sponsorship proposal. MET seeks to oversee Eci' Nompa Woonspe', a small Morton charter school that emphasizes American Indian culture.

The Education Department denied the application because a new state law forbids religious groups from sponsoring charter schools, and MET has a "sectarian nature and mission," state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said in a letter to the group last week.

Seagren's letter laid out a list of "entanglements" that she said MET has with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. She also pointed out that several people who helped found the group have ties to Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), including the school's principals.

TiZA, a charter school with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, faces a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which claims the public school illegally promotes Islam.

MET's founders were motivated partly by a desire to foster better relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, but the group is not sectarian, said MET board member Wayne Jennings.

"We just got fed up," Jennings said of the group's legal action. "We felt we were being treated unfairly, and felt that we fulfilled the legal requirements of being a sponsor, and we couldn't get the department to meet about this."

MET's articles of incorporation, which were amended in May, list one of the group's purposes as "religious." But the group has scrubbed sectarian language from its mission since it learned that religious links could be a problem, and that reference was left in "inadvertently," said Blois Olson, a Twin Cities public relations executive who has acted as a spokesman for MET.

The group's board members want to sponsor charter schools partly because they want to replicate the academic success they see at TiZA, Jennings said. Students at TiZA have done well on state tests despite the fact that most are learning English and come from poor immigrant families.

"I think there was concern about the fact that a lot of minority students, particularly Muslim students ... face prejudice and discrimination in the schools, and have a hard time," Jennings said.

The board has recruited seasoned educators as advisers, said Jennings, who helped start several charter schools after retiring from a long career in education, much of which he spent as a teacher and principal in St. Paul schools.

But the group, wrote Seagren, "has never sponsored a charter school nor does it operate as an independent school district with immediate expertise in school operations, finances and academics." Students at Eci' Nompa Woonspe' also show "extremely low rates of proficiency" on state math and reading tests, her letter said.

State law requires charter schools to have sponsors -- which can be colleges, school districts or nonprofit groups -- that monitor their finances and operations.

MET turned down several charter schools that asked the group to consider sponsoring them, Jennings said. It accepted others, including Eci' Nompa Woonspe', which is located about 100 miles west of the Twin Cities.

The school's name, which means "Second Chance at Learning" in the Dakota language, has a few dozen students, many of whom struggled in their previous schools, according to court documents.

That school's current sponsor, the Redwood School District, is cutting ties because district leaders don't believe they can provide the proper oversight, said Redwood Superintendent Rick Ellingworth.

Last year, MET also applied to take over sponsorship of the Academy for Sciences and Agriculture in Vadnais Heights and proposed to oversee three new charter schools. Those applications were rejected because state officials said MET did not meet a deadline to show that the group met all the financial requirements of eligible sponsors. But Jennings said MET has met all the conditions to become a sponsor and supplied more financial documents than necessary.

The group's assets include the school property that TiZA leases in Inver Grove Heights, which he said was donated to the group by the Muslim American Society. MET is also the parent group of the holding company that leases space to the school in Blaine.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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