Newsletter #18 – Tennessee State Board of Education cont’d

1.Tennessee’s church-related statute

 Attendance in a “church-related school” as defined by Tennessee law is one way that state compulsory education requirements can be met.

To qualify as a “church-related school” according to Tennessee law (T.C.A. 49-50-801(a)), a school must be:

“operated by denominational, parochial or bona fide church organizations, and,the school must meet the accreditation standards or be a member of any of the organizations enumerated in the statute.”

The statute also permits a would-be church-related school to voluntarily seek approval directly from the State Board of Education (SBE).  There is no language in the statute to suggest that going directly to the SBE allows an applicant to avoid the qualifying criteria stated above.

Section (b) of the statute prohibits either the SBE or local boards of education from regulating the selection of faculty, textbooks or curriculum of church-related schools.

The legislative history related to Tennessee’s statute on “church-related schools” reflects an intent to require that any church-related school, whether a member of one of the organizations listed in the statute or approved directly by the SBE, either go through an accreditation process or in some other way be accountable for the education provided to students in these schools.  This requirement was of particular concern because the statute also prohibited the regulation of church-related schools by either the state or local boards of education.

Four of the organizations listed in the statute are either sectarian or non-sectarian accrediting organizations, another is an association that requires its members to adhere to detailed educational guidelines including standardized annual achievement testing, and two other organizations listed address the specific needs of students who are home-schooled in church-related schools.

Students home-schooled in church-related schools operate in accordance with what is referred to as the “Jeter memo”, an administrative interpretation of the church-related school statute.   In part, the Jeter memo specifically stated that,  “If the church-related school is unable to meet these [the statute’s] standards of accreditation or membership in the named associations, then the school is not a church-related school as defined in the statute.”  The 1999 Jeter memo made no mention of the voluntary SBE approval process, but rather, cautioned parents to make sure that the school they choose meets the accreditation or membership requirements of the statute in order to be in compliance with Tennessee’s mandatory education attendance law.

2. Application Process

Currently, when an entity wishes to be established as a church-related school, it must submit an application to the SBE.  The application requires listing the denominational, parochial or other bona fide religious organization operating the school and “the name and address of any accrediting association through which the school is accredited or in which the school holds membership.”  The would-be school must also provide certification of compliance with building codes, fire safety and certain state Health Department regulations.

If a would-be school is neither accredited nor a member of the statute’s listed organizations, they can apply directly to the SBE for approval.  After review by the SBE staff a recommendation may be made for approval at the SBE meeting.  The section of the application regarding accreditation or membership is left blank.  In this situation the SBE merely confirms compliance with safety regulations, etc.

3. The Nashville International Academy (NIA)

The NIA is an Islamic school located in Nashville.  The cover page to the school’s application is attached.

The NIA application lists the “Nashville International Academy Shura Board” as the denominational, parochial or other bona fide religious organization operating the school.  But the last section of the application page is blank because the Islamic school is not accredited by any of the accrediting organizations, not even the non-denominational accrediting agency.  This was noted by the SBE when it approved the NIA application and this means that no outside agency or organization has reviewed what is being taught in this school.

The SBE also noted that the NIA is “operated by a bona fide religious organization affiliated with the NIA.  Recall that the ICN is closely connected to the Muslim Brotherhood organization the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).