When school principal Farhat Siddiqui asks parents why they want their children to attend a private Islamic school, she often hears horror stories about kids facing anti-Muslim bullying. She listens to scared parents who fear for their children’s safety within a society that pushes Islamophobia and misinformation. She talks to parents who say they just want their kids to attend a school where they are protected and their values are understood.
There’s a growing demand for private Islamic schools among Muslims in her community and across the country, Siddiqui said. But when she thinks about who could expand real access to such schools, she thinks of the same man who has helped make families feel so scared: President Donald Trump.
The number of Islamic schools across the United States is small ― there are approximately 300 ― but growing. Like many other private schools, they can come with a steep price tag. In his preliminary 2018 budget, Trump has proposed a program to expand school choice. Although the details are unclear, such an initiative could make it easier for lower-income families to afford private schools, Islamic and otherwise.
There is irony in the idea that the same man who has repeatedly trafficked in anti-Islamic rhetoric may make it easier for children to receive an education steeped in Islamic values. For Siddiqui, it is just one of life’s tradeoffs.
“I feel that every political candidate that’s out there is going to make decisions that will help some aspects of your life and may not be of benefit to some aspects of your life,” said Siddiqui, who is the principal at the American Youth Academy in Tampa, Florida. “As far as the private school choice and all of that, that’s definitely beneficial for us as a community. I think it’s helpful for our schools.”
Siddiqui’s school already benefits from a state-level effort called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Started in 2001 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the program gives tax breaks to individuals and corporations that donate money to an organization that then grants private school scholarships to lower-income students. About 40 percent of the kids at Siddiqui’s school receive those scholarships.
Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has long championed Florida’s program, and a federal school choice effort might work along the same lines. Groups like the Council for Islamic Schools in North America, which advocates for and helps accredit private Islamic institutions, think that on this issue, DeVos will be an ally.
Leaders from the Council for Islamic Schools and other groups, including those that represent Jewish and Catholic schools, met with DeVos in March. Sufia Azmat, executive director of the council, spoke to the secretary one-on-one and invited her to come visit an Islamic school. DeVos seemed open to the idea, said Azmat, although nothing has been scheduled.
In the past, the mere involvement of Islamic schools in statewide voucher programs ― which use public dollars to pay for students’ enrollment in private schools ― has been seen as problematic by some lawmakers. In 2012, a Louisiana legislator retracted support for a voucher program after realizing it could benefit Muslim schools. When debating a voucher program in Tennessee in 2013, lawmakers expressed similar concerns.
The solution, according to Azmat, is for Muslim schools to be more transparent about how they operate and the benefits they provide. Azmat ― who said the Trump administration has driven her to become bolder in her advocacy of Muslim schools ― is already thinking of ways her organization could respond if a future school choice program discriminated against Islamic schools. Such discrimination would be unconstitutional, she said.
“We don’t want to hurt the school choice movement. ... That would be sad if we had to take a backseat because school choice would be hurt if Islamic schools are involved,” Azmat said. “I think it’s been an opportunity for us as Muslims and Islamic schools to realize we have to do more community outreach.”
That would be sad if we had to take a backseat because school choice would be hurt if Islamic schools are involved. Sufia Azmat, executive director of the Council for Islamic Schools in North America
But for parents like Khaled Alhamzawi, who has two children attending Siddiqui’s school, and for Siddiqui herself, supporting school choice programs is not automatic.
Any federal initiative should come with strict accountability over the schools covered, Siddiqui said. She also urged the education secretary to take pains to support all educational institutions, not just private ones.
Alhamzawi, a pharmacist who grew up in Syria, is fortunate enough not to need financial aid to pay for private school, although he knows other families who benefit from Florida’s support of scholarships. He’s not sure that nationwide expansion of such a program would truly benefit the country. He fears that greater public funding for private education could hemorrhage money away from already struggling public school systems.
“Even though I send my kids to private schools, I do understand that not every family can support that and not every family chooses that. Public schools should still be a good system,” Alhamzawi said.
If a school choice effort did not disadvantage public school students, he could see himself supporting it. By increasing the number of families who could afford Islamic schools, he noted, the program could drive competition among those schools and improve quality.
Indeed, Alhamzawi is acutely aware of the importance of parents having choices in where their kids go to school. He moved his family from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Tampa so that his children could attend the American Youth Academy.