Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

What About Religious Charter Schools?

By Lawrence D. Weinberg & Bruce S. Cooper — June 18, 2007 7 min read

Charter schools are gaining in popularity, with approximately 4,000 now open, enrolling some 1.1 million U.S. children with more participating every year. Since the charter school movement began in 1991 in Minnesota, these schools have filled a need in American society, giving individuals, communities, and local associations a chance to create their own schools—with tax dollars paying the basic costs.

A major, unresolved question remains, however: What about opening and funding religious charter schools? How would localities handle the many complexities of funding charter schools that have a religious, social, and cultural mission? History offers some perspective.

When the state of Oregon passed a law in 1922 requiring that all school-aged children attend a public school in their community, the issue of religious freedom in education went to court in the case Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that outlawing attendance at private or religious schools was unconstitutional, a violation of parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children. The court also noted, however, that recognizing the right to attend private/religious schools is different from legalizing the public funding of such schools.

By 1965, more than 12 percent of American children were attending private K-12 schools, with 80 percent of those students enrolled in schools run by the Catholic Church. These religious schools were privately financed, however, through student tuition and fees, donations, fundraising (such as raffles, bingo, and Christmas-card sales), and some private endowments.

History offers some perspective on the complexities of funding charter schools that have a religious, social, and cultural mission.

Yet despite the prohibition on public funding, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 assigned public school teachers and resources to provide services to impoverished children who attended private religious schools. Without the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, President Lyndon B. Johnson might not have been able to build the Democratic coalition he needed to get this landmark school legislation adopted by Congress.

So, helping children in religious schools was not unknown or forbidden by law and policy in the final decades of the last century. On the other hand, the courts had ruled continuously that the doctrine of church-state separation meant no “direct” public dollars could pay for religious education, at least at the K-12 level. (College funding for religion classes and religious-affiliated colleges under the GI Bill and the Pell Grant program were not against the law.)

Direct public funding is still not legal for K-12 education. Tax dollars may not be used to support a particular religious ideology, activity, or program. In effect, public tax money cannot be used to endorse religion. Hence, salaries for elementary and secondary school teachers of Bible, Koran, or catechism classes could not be paid from the public purse, if the teachers were endorsing these religious beliefs.

How, then, did, for example, a government-sanctioned religious charter school open its doors in Minnesota four years ago? The process came in three steps. First, the Pierce decision protected the rights of private and religious schools to exist. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, legalized the use of public vouchers to pay students’ tuition at religious K-12 schools in Cleveland, where the case originated, as long as the family was the determinant of where the child attended school. The money for education thus followed the child, and reflected family choice and values; it was not a direct government payment to religious schools. These rulings enabled Minnesota, the national leader in charter school legislation, with one of the more restrictive state charter laws, to find a way to charter and finance the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, bolstering Islamic history, language, and values.

What happens when a religious association, such as a Muslim group, opens a new charter school outside Minneapolis supportive of and sensitive to the culture of Islam—its values, beliefs, and leaders—without its being a Muslim religious charter school? How does this school walk the fine line between serving a public purpose (educating children in a sensitive, culturally specific, values-oriented program) and being an Islamic religious school? The academy answers these questions on its Web site:

“Are you looking for a comprehensive and balanced education? A rigorous Arabic-language program? An environment that fosters your cultural values and heritage? Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy seeks to provide students with a learning environment that recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations, and accomplishments of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. [It] seeks to nurture the innate human values of brotherhood, equality, justice, compassion, and peace. … Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy offers tuition-free education to all students upon admission.”

The existence of a religious charter school like the Ziyad Academy could well lead to a string of new religious/cultural charters. Its mission, as stated on the school’s Web site, is clear and values-oriented, but not related solely to religion:

“The mission of the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy is to contribute to building a diverse, virtuous, and moral America by helping children to understand their stewardship role in the world, embedding in them a sense of care, responsibility, love, leadership, civic participation, citizenship, tolerance, and cooperation. … The historic example of Tarek ibn Ziyad, 1,300 years ago, in his multifaceted role as an activist, leader, explorer, teacher, administrator, and peacemaker, will instill in our youth the desire to achieve the heights of human greatness.”

Is the stage set for a range of government-financed religious/cultural charter schools? At present, 40 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, have charter school laws, each a little different, creating a complex picture nationally of such schools. Charters come in many sizes and shapes, all having an interesting blend of private choice and leadership that’s supported and fostered by public funding. So why not also have religious charter schools, benefiting from per-student tuition payments of, for example, $8,000, creating a whole new set of parental options?

This development is already under way in Minnesota and, presumably, may be set to take hold soon in other localities. Religious groups could take the following steps to create charter schools that would meet legal requirements and also accommodate their beliefs:

• Create a separate, secular foundation to manage the financing of the school building and to help raise money for the instructional program.

More religious charter schools may come, as other faiths see an opportunity to open schools with a clear cultural and ethical mission.

• Write a charter school application under state law specifying that the new school will be culturally sensitive to the religious group being served, but will not endorse the tenets of the faith.

• State a mission that has specific educational and pedagogical objectives totally unrelated to the religious and cultural purposes, but parallel to the faith.

• Design a curriculum that meets both the religious/cultural mission and the educational purposes.

• Focus recruitment on the particular religious group, while being open to admitting members of other faiths.

The timing is right. Charter schools have caught on. A religiously sensitive charter school has been attempted in one state, and appears to be legal and workable. More may come, as other faiths see an opportunity to open schools with a clear cultural and ethical mission, a general pedagogy, and attractiveness to members of their religious group.

Legal questions emerge when parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers consider religion in charter school policies such as these: (1) Can a charter school require religious instruction? No. (2) Can clergy sit on the board of a charter school? Yes. (3) Can charter schools have religious criteria for hiring staff members? No. (4) Can charter schools offer a place and time for students to pray? Yes. (5) Can charter schools require students to pray? No.

A Roman Catholic diocese, association, or community might want to create a St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where children would learn the values and teachings of St. Thomas. Or Jewish groups might want to create the same kind of school named after Rabbi Hillel. The schools’ philosophies would be cast in a cultural-academic setting, not as a Catholic, parochial, or Hebrew school, but much as the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy expresses its mission: to teach the ethics and history of the faith, but not to practice it.

Might we someday see a different system of both public and private education in the United States, one in which many schools are, in some sense, charter programs? These new charter schools would be publicly funded by tax revenues, available to all children based on parental choice, and as diverse, culturally and religiously, as our society.

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as What About Religious Charter Schools?

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