Education Letter to the Editor

Religious Charter Schools: An Inaccurate Portrayal?

July 17, 2007 3 min read

To the Editor:

In their June 20, 2007, Commentary, Lawrence D. Weinberg and Bruce S. Cooper argue that the time is right to establish religious charter schools (“What About Religious Charter Schools?”). But what they advocate, the law forbids.

Charter schools are public schools, subject to the same federal and state constitutional restrictions as all other public schools. They may not proselytize or otherwise pursue a religious mission. Nor, the U.S. Supreme Court has held, may they tailor their curriculum “to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma” in deciding what they teach and how they teach it. Simply put, government may not operate or fund schools that seek to advance a religious agenda.

And while Messrs. Weinberg and Cooper acknowledge that charter schools cannot lawfully require religious instruction, they fail to mention that the schools also cannot offer religious instruction as an elective, and that federal law prohibits school employees from leading, sponsoring, or participating in religious activities with students even in voluntary, extracurricular clubs.

Nor may charter schools “focus recruitment” on a particular religious group, even if, as the authors recommend, they maintain a fig leaf of “being open to admitting members of other faiths.” The U.S. Constitution forbids public institutions to favor one faith over others. Masking the discrimination with a veneer of neutrality does not cure the violation.

Messrs. Weinberg and Cooper also appear to advocate sanitizing charter applications and mission statements to hide a school’s religious nature. But chartering authorities aren’t so easily duped—especially because the Constitution requires rigorous governmental oversight to ensure that public money is limited to secular uses. What’s more, most states impose substantial monetary penalties on anyone who knowingly makes false statements to obtain government money. Indeed, one state supreme court has concluded that charter school operators can be held liable for obtaining educational funds by making false statements to their chartering authorities. So those who shade charter applications to portray religious schools as secular do so at their peril.

The authors’ promise of easy money is far more likely to land charter school operators and chartering authorities in court than to secure public funding for religious schools. If schools wish to maintain a religious identity, they may do so—but not on the public’s tab.

Ayesha N. Khan

Legal Director

Richard B. Katskee

Assistant Legal Director

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

I read Lawrence D. Weinberg and Bruce S. Cooper’s Commentary “What About Religious Charter Schools?” with great interest, as I have been the official monitor of the charter school discussed in their essay, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, during its four-year existence.

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy is not a religious school, nor does it teach religion. It teaches Arabic and is sensitive to cultural and historic references, but uses standard curriculum materials and is open to any student. Parents send their children to the school to get an excellent education for life in a democracy, and to escape discriminatory practices they have encountered in other schools. The Minnesota Department of Education does not tolerate the teaching of religion in any public school, charter or otherwise. State education department employees have visited the school, and it passed muster.

Amazingly, Messrs. Weinberg and Cooper quote from the school’s mission and Web site, which do not reference religion, but make the assumption it is a religious charter school. They don’t know what they are talking about. They then proceed to build their case as though they have proven that Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy is religious, and that soon we’ll have many religious charter schools. I find their characterization and arguments dishonest.

Wayne Jennings

St. Paul, Minn.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Religious Charter Schools: An Inaccurate Portrayal?