Charter Schools and Wall of Separation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the Guidance Charter School in Palmdale, which shares its campus with a mosque, the walls separating church and state are about six feet high.

The thin gray partitions allow Guidance Charter's 70 students to use a mosque bathroom without viewing devotional acts in an adjacent prayer room. The school's Muslim founders erected the walls as a 1st Amendment concession.

"We were ignorant," Principal Ali Hassan said with a sheepish smile, "about mixing religion with the state."

But the walls haven't satisfied those who say Guidance Charter should not be receiving taxpayer money. Although its curriculum is secular, the school has the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League concerned because of its ties to the mosque and its plans to offer Koran classes after school.

Opened in November, Guidance Charter is among a growing number of California charter schools operating out of churches and mosques, a situation that has raised murky legal issues. Guidance Charter originally was going to be called the American Islamic School of Antelope Valley, until administrators decided a nonreligious name was more appropriate.

About 30 of the elementary and middle school students are non-Muslim. All students study Arabic as a second language.

Aaron Levinson, Anti-Defamation League regional director, said the school is "clearly violating 1st Amendment guidelines." The Palmdale School District board, which voted 3-2 in October to approve Guidance Charter's provisional charter, will decide in March whether to extend the designation beyond the current school year.

The school chairman, Gaber Mohamed, founded the Islamic institute that runs the mosque. Guidance Charter rents its seven classrooms for $1 per month from the institute, and mosque members are encouraged to donate to the school.

California charter schools have been around since 1992. The schools are publicly funded but freed from many of the regulations imposed on non-charter schools. In California, local school boards approve charters; the state reviews only those applications that the boards reject.

The Palmdale board approved Guidance Charter despite numerous issues raised by Framroze Virjee, the school district's attorney. Virjee was particularly concerned about the school's location behind the mosque.

"There was the chance that there would be a sense of an implicit imprimatur given by the district to the Islamic faith," he said.

The law forbids religious instruction in publicly funded classrooms. But federal courts have been rethinking the relationship between public schools and religion, generally becoming more lenient. And the California Department of Education has no policies on matters such as after-school prayer on charter campuses, or the schools' proximity to houses of worship, said state charter schools chief Eileen Cubanski.

Because religious affiliations aren't documented on the charter school paperwork, Cubanski said, the state cannot determine precisely how many of the 400 campuses have religious ties. But she said anecdotal evidence suggests that religious groups are turning to the charter system, their only means of obtaining public education dollars.

A Strong Sense of

Community and Mission

Charter school advocates such as David Patterson, government liaison for the California Network of Educational Charters, say religious groups can be ideal sponsors of charter schools. In inner cities, the organizations often provide the best social services, and their buildings are among the few with classroom space, the advocates add.

The groups also have a strong sense of community and mission, two attributes sometimes lacking in public education, Patterson said.

"There's always somebody who says charters have got to be more plain vanilla," he said. "Well, no. They are all mission-driven schools.... That's what makes them work."

In the Los Angeles area, charter schools with religious ties take on various forms.

Littlerock's Henry Hearns Charter School rents its classrooms from the First Missionary Baptist Church and is named for its pastor; Principal Patricia Rhodes said that although teachers never lead students in prayer, spontaneous worshiping is common.

In downtown Los Angeles, the Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School educates troubled high school students. Its founder, Roman Catholic Brother Modesto Leon, says he takes students on retreats to "reflect on a higher power."

In the Mid-Wilshire area, L.A. Unified's Camino Nuevo Charter Academy rents classrooms from a Jewish temple on Wilshire, but has no other relationship with it.

Much of the appeal of charter schools lies in their autonomy from rigid bureaucracies. But skeptics say that same freedom can make crossing 1st Amendment lines easier.

"It's a question of a trade-off," said Amy Stuart Wells, a Columbia University education professor who studied charter schools at UCLA. "We've opened up the system a little bit more, and it's created some interesting educational environments. But in some cases, we've also created some slippage in regard to allowing religious activity."

To ensure that does not happen in Palmdale, district officials have been making surprise visits to Guidance Charter. So far, the officials say, the school is living up to its word to keep religion out of class.

That was confirmed by many of the school's non-Muslim parents. They say they like the values that govern Guidance Charter's classrooms, and the school's zero-tolerance code of conduct.

"They're not supposed to teach religion, and they don't," said Deme Sewell, 30, who was waiting for her two boys recently in the mosque parking lot. "And I like it because the class size is less than 20 students."

Directly Testing

Church-State Boundary

Some California charter schools have tested the church-state boundary more directly than Guidance Charter has.

In Sunnyvale, the Silicon Valley Academy--the satellite campus of a Fresno-based charter school--was found to be teaching the Koran during school hours in December, according to a Fresno district spokeswoman. The campus' parent school, Gateway Academy, severed its ties with the satellite campus as a result. Gateway has since lost its charter for other reasons.

In Nevada County's Twin Ridges district, a federal lawsuit filed by parents and others accused a charter school of teaching religion. The school uses the Waldorf educational method, which is based on the philosophies of Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner, and includes teachings about Christian saints and Biblical figures. The suit, which also named a public school in the Sacramento area, was thrown out in lower court and the plaintiffs have appealed.

Guidance Charter has put off its after-school Koran classes until the school board votes on extending the charter. School officials also promise to move to a separate campus within three years, and say they have taken pains to obey the letter and spirit of the law.

Hassan, an Egyptian native who holds a UCLA doctorate in Islamic history, has given up his Friday sermons and discussions at the mosque.

Hassan--a bearded, soft-spoken man with a taste for double-breasted suits--said it was a difficult decision. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many less devout Muslims have returned to the mosque to learn more about their religion, he said.

"If you're in Rome, you've got to do as the Romans do," he said. "We are Americans, and we have to conform to the Constitution of this land."

Coloring-book Christmas trees still on display in a window were the sole outward sign of religion in the classrooms. Only one of the school's five teachers--Arabic instructor Randa Abdelshafy--is Muslim.

During her high-energy lessons, Abdelshafy scrupulously avoids words with a religious bent--even the common greeting "Salaam aleikum," or "Peace be with you."

Yet for the children--as well as their parents--the secular and religious can still get a little mixed up. After school, a young student made a point of running up to a visitor to shout, "Hey, we're not of this religion. We're Christians!"

When parent Shahid Khurshid came to pick up his children, he gave Hassan a $200 check. When the principal asked whether it was for the mosque or the school, Khurshid said, "Whatever."

Khurshid, a 34-year-old gas station owner, said he was happy with Guidance Charter. But he said he wishes his children were learning more about their religion.

"If [the school] doesn't teach them," he said, "I guess I will have to teach them at home."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°