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Published in Print: August 6, 2003, as No More Vouchers for Florida Islamic School

No More Vouchers for Florida Islamic School

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A private Islamic school in Tampa, Fla., has been dropped from a state voucher program after it was widely publicized in the Florida media that two men affiliated with the school have been charged with links to terrorism.

The Islamic Academy of Florida received about $300,000 last year through a state program that facilitates privately financed scholarships to allow needy K-12 students to attend private schools, including religious schools. Voucher critics have pounced on the situation to argue that Florida's corporate-tax- credit voucher program lacks adequate oversight.

In February, a federal grand jury in Tampa charged the two men with conspiracy to commit murder, maim, or injure persons outside of the United States, along with other criminal acts.

According to court documents, Sami Amin Al-Arian, who was the founder and was a board member of the school from its establishment in 1992 until at least June 2002, and Sameeh Hammoudeh, who was the school's treasurer up until the time of the indictment, were charged with supporting violent attacks by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization that is said to have killed more than 100 people in Israel.

Mr. Al-Arian was also a professor of engineering at the University of South Florida, which terminated his position after the indictment was issued. Both men entered "not guilty" pleas with the court, but they are now in jail, awaiting a trial scheduled to begin Jan. 10, 2005.

Although the federal indictment against the two men and six others was issued in February, Florida PRIDE—one of seven nonprofit organizations in Florida that distribute the tuition aid to low- income families—didn't remove the Islamic school from its list of schools eligible to receive vouchers until July 18.

Also on July 18, Florida Education Commissioner Jim Horne released a statement saying that the Islamic Academy would no longer receive money from any of the state's voucher programs. The statement noted that the "situation" was being investigated by state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Mr. Horne also announced state- led forums to discuss accountability for schools participating in voucher programs. The first of those meetings was held last week.

'Egregious Case'

Last school year, the 220-student school received about $300,000 through vouchers from Florida PRIDE when it enrolled 101 students under the scholarship program, according to Denise Lasher, the spokeswoman for Florida PRIDE. The group's name stands for Parental Rights in Deciding Education.

In February, after Florida PRIDE learned about the indictment, it hired an independent accountant to audit the school's financial records. Ms. Lasher said that the auditor found the scholarship money had been spent appropriately. Florida PRIDE decided not to penalize the school.

Ms. Lasher contended that this summer, however, after a local newspaper drew attention to the indictment's mention of the Islamic school, two state senators exaggerated the situation to such an extent that the negative publicity threatened the health of the whole corporate-tax-break program.

"The program and the children became political pawns," she said.

To make sure that the controversy didn't damage the overall voucher program, she said, Florida PRIDE decided it would be wisest to remove the Islamic school from its list.

Officials at the Islamic Academy didn't respond to a request for comment last week. The state legislators Ms. Lasher referred to are Sens. Ron Klein and Dave Aronberg, both Democrats.

After reading a July 17 article in The Palm Beach Post about the association of the Islamic Academy with the men charged, they asked Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, to halt any voucher money flowing to the school.

Mr. Aronberg said in an interview last week he believes the corporate-backed voucher program is seriously lacking in accountability. "This is probably the most egregious case," he said. "It looks like our tax dollars are supporting terrorism."

The Islamic Academy is named in the federal indictment as one of several places that Mr. Al-Arian and Mr. Hammoudeh allegedly used as a cover to raise money and provide support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the group's operations in the Middle East. The indictment also alleges that the men caused an employee at the school to tell an unidentified caller who wanted to make a donation to Palestinians to write a check to the school.

Ms. Lasher of Florida PRIDE compared the situation to that of a public school that is found to have an employee who embezzled public money without being detected for some time.

"We don't shut down the public school system because there are a couple of bad apples in the system," she said.

Vol. 22, Issue 43, Page 3

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