Friday, October 21, 2005

The fallacy of public school diversity

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:43 PM |  

I’ve received a bit of email on my column from Wednesday describing Al-Amal, an Islamic school located in Fridley, some favorable, some critical -- not necessarily critical of Al-AMAL school, but of my position that a public education system based on school choice would support religious schools. A specific paragraph of my column read --

While public education preaches multiculturalism, public school policies and the environments they foster are antithetical to the diversity they preach. Reaction to a lack of discipline and moral values in government schools, intolerance for the overt observance of Islamic practices and a lack of academic rigor are major reasons why Al-Amal was founded 11 years ago, why it is thriving and expanding, and why it provides a model for a genuine "public education" system for students of all faiths and economic levels.
Government schools constantly defend themselves when compared to private schools like Al-Amal with the mantra that unlike private schools, public schools take everyone. Public schools promote multiculturalism and diversity. But what good does it do to “take everyone” if a school cannot meet everyone’s needs? What is the value of diversity if it is only skin deep and people are not allowed to practice the traditions that make them unique?

A perfect example of the way public school policies and the environments they foster are antithetical to diversity is found in an incident at a school board meeting in Porter Township in northwest Indiana.

Susan Miller approached Ayesha Syed, the mother of two new Muslim students at Porter Lakes, and tried to explain her reasoning for adamantly and outwardly opposing a presentation Syed gave to the students about the Muslim culture. . . .

On Sept. 30, Syed and her Muslim friend, Ameenah Abdullah, came to the school to talk to a second-grade class and the entire third grade about the Muslim culture.

The presentation, for students who are the same ages as Syed's children, was intended to answer questions about the Muslim culture. The women talked about religion because it is heavily intertwined with the Muslim culture, and that upset many in the Porter Lakes community.
Okay, so far so good. One would think that such a presentation, given that Muslim children would be attending the school would be a good thing. The presentation might help integrate some of that prized diversity and answer questions the kids might have about a culture that they hadn’t been exposed to. On the other hand, the objecting parents made some good points.

The majority of speakers vehemently opposed religion in the public school setting. Michelle Colvin said her son had questions for her about Allah that caught her off guard. She said she should have been notified of the presentation in advance.

Miller touched on another hot issue surrounding the Muslim family -- the creation of a prayer room at the school for the Muslim children, which school officials will not confirm -- and demanded fair treatment for all faiths.

"If they're going to cater to one religion, they better cater to all of 'em," she said and asked for an altar to be added for her Catholic son.

Miller's speech, the first of more than a dozen, garnered an applause and an "amen" from the standing-room-only crowd. In an interview before the meeting, she said, "I'm not prejudiced, but I do have a concern when it comes to Muslim people."

Jamye Matlon, the mother of two children at Porter Lakes, said that religion -- not race -- was the issue.

"You're more than welcome to come to my school, black, white whatever," Matlon said. "But don't start asking for special favors, especially bringing religion into it."
These are not trivial issues. Whether for better or worse, we’ve secularized public schools and there’s a zero tolerance attitude on that point. Fact is, even if it wanted to, a public school could not cater to all religions and still run any semblance of an educational institution. It’s only right that one religion not be granted special favors. BUT -- if that is the official policy, then public schools shouldn’t go claiming they take everyone when they can’t meet everyone’s needs, and they shouldn’t self-righteously proclaim they promote diversity when they deny the diverse practices of minority groups.

The question then becomes, if education is really about children, if “public education” is really about education in the common interest, if diversity is something to prize as American freely associate with one another, why -- why -- do public education officials resist meaningful school choice? Why do they insist that low-income families must keep their children in schools where they are not served and the traditions that make them unique are denied them?

Basit Syed, the father of the Muslim children, said the intent of the presentation was to help the children understand the hijab, or Muslim head scarf. He was worried about other kids teasing his 9-year-old daughter, Khadija.

"I don't want her students, her classmates, not to make fun of her," Basit said. "I want her classmates to respect her. That's the only thing they both came here to tell the students, the kids."
Why cannot money already budgeted to provide a free “public education” for a student follow the student rather than be funneled through a one-size-fits-all infrastructure? Why can’t education dollars follow a student whether that student attends a government school, a private school or a religious school? Just what are the education elite afraid of?