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Charter Schools and Wall of Separation

Education: Religious groups operating tax-supported campuses have won praise from some, but critics question the church-state ties.

January 27, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | 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.

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