Texas Education Agency Looking Into Complaints of Charter School Chain Following Turkish Government Complaints

Published August 22, 2016

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has asked to see two-years’ worth of records from a network of public charter schools in the state following complaints filed on behalf of the Turkish government.

Houston-based Harmony Public Schools is Texas’ largest charter school operator, with 46 campuses, 30,500 students enrolled, and about 30,000 students on waiting lists.

International law group Amsterdam and Partners filed a complaint in May on behalf of the Republic of Turkey, announcing in a press release they were “urging the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to conduct a full investigation into Harmony based on documented abuses suggesting a wide-spread pattern of fraud, discrimination, and abuse in the Harmony network.”  

The press release also said the group “is conducting a global investigation into the alleged illegal activities of the Gülen Organization,” which the Republic of Turkey claims has ties to the Harmony charter schools.

A spokesman for TEA announced in July the agency was seeking more information “to see if there’s any substance to the complaint.”

The San-Antonio Express-News reported, “TEA officials asked the school system for copies of documents pertaining to contracts, bonds, purchasing agreements, vendors, and a list of employees involved in purchasing from July of 2014 to July of 2016. Harmony has until Aug. 11 to respond.”

Harmony officials said in a statement the accusations are “preposterous,” and they say they welcome “the opportunity to fully cooperate with the Texas Education Agency.”

Embroiled in Political Controversy

The recent, failed military coup in Turkey brought the Gülen Movement back into the news, with media outlets reminding audiences of the movement’s alleged connection to some public charter schools in the United States.

Fethullah Gülen is an Islamic cleric from Turkey who resides as a recluse in a compound in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. BBC reports Gülen’s followers, known as “Hizmet,” are “a well-organized community of people—not a political party … that promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasizes altruism, modesty, hard work, and education.”

Followers of Gülen operate a network of schools and universities in more than 100 countries, CNN reports. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The Gülen movement is said to be tied to around 150 US charter schools,” though “most of the schools deny any connection to the cleric.”

Gülen is a former ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two became enemies in 2013 after Gülen challenged Erdogan’s growing power.  

In July, Erdogan accused Gülen of orchestrating the attempted coup in Turkey, which left at least 161 people dead. In an interview with the Associated Press, Gülen denied any involvement in the coup and condemned the plot to overthrow Erdogan. Erdogan has asked the Obama administration to extradite Gülen.

After the coup, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Gülen Movement’s Charter Schools May Be Caught Up in Turkey-U.S. Standoff,” in which the Journal reported, “The accusations against Mr. Gülen and tension between the U.S. and Turkey could affect new schools and charters up for renewal that are run by Turkish-Americans and are said to be connected with the cleric.”

Accusations, Investigations

The Austin Chronicle reports, “The Harmony charter schools, of which there are six in Austin and 46 in Texas alone, were founded by Turks sympathetic to or adhering to Gülen’s teaching.”

David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, a charter support and advocacy group, says Soner Tarim, CEO of Harmony Public Schools, does not work for Gülen.

“I have heard Soner say in the past that he’s found some inspiration in Gülen’s teachings but is in no way affiliated with Gülen and the work that he does out of the Poconos,” Dunn said.

Several charter schools allegedly operated by Gülen followers have been accused of corruption and discrimination. In 2014, “the FBI raided the offices of a Gülen-linked charter operator, Concept Schools, seeking information about companies it had contracted with under the federal E-Rate program for its schools across the Midwest,” The Nation reported.

A school connected to the Gülen Movement in Louisiana was shut down in 2011 after an investigation by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education found “very severe safety, health, and welfare issues.”

Schools allegedly tied to Gülen have also been found in good standing after investigations. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District in Louisiana ended its investigation against the Pelican Educational Foundation earlier in 2016 without filing charges.

Dunn says the charter schools are willing to work with authorities to resolve problems. 

“There have been a number of allegations and accusations in Texas and also outside of Texas,” Dunn said. “I’m only familiar with Harmony and the situation in Texas. All of this is based on my awareness—some of these investigations might be ongoing—but to my knowledge, they’ve all been investigated with no significant findings to date. There have been a couple of areas that Harmony entered into an agreement with the Federal Office of Civil Rights around—I think a gender equity issue—but to my knowledge, any of those findings that resulted from the investigations from these accusations have been resolved by Harmony working with these various authorities.”

Critical Documentary

Mark S. Hall, a documentary filmmaker and lawyer, first encountered the Gülen Movement nearly 10 years ago while volunteering for a nonprofit organization in Texas. He says he observed “troubling” things about the movement, which led him to make the film Killing Ed, described on the movie’s website as “a documentary film about charter schools, corruption, and the Gülen Movement.”

In Killing Ed, Hall interviews education researchers, many of them outspoken critics of education choice, who are critical of the Gülen Movement and its involvement in charter schools. The film shows interviews of charter school teachers who allege the schools they worked for practiced wage and gender discrimination, treated students poorly, and hired unqualified teachers.

“There have been FBI investigations in four different states of charter schools: Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Louisiana,” Hall said. “Some of those investigations are still ongoing. They tend to show that there’s been some corrupt activity involving government contracts. It’s still kind of a murky situation. There’s never been a complete investigation in Texas to find out where these funds have been distributed to. There’s been a number of different requests for investigations, but none of them have really looked hard into the use of funds that taxpayers are paying to operate these schools.”

Liberty or Criminality?

Hall says the people involved in running the nearly 150 taxpayer-funded charter schools in question are part of “an amorphous, very fluid, and dynamic group.”

“They will often disavow any connection with Fettulah Gülen, but as you see in Killing Ed, there are multiple data points that indicate connections,” Hall said.

Hall says the goal of the Gülen Movement is likely “political in nature” and “business-focused.” Hall says there’s “a very interesting nexus” among construction firms building charter schools, catering services, uniform companies, and bus operators that are apparently affiliated with the Gülen Movement and “feed off the charter schools.” 

Jim Harrington, founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project and author of Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen, says the movement’s influence is positive. 

“It’s basically a Sufi Muslim movement of service to a larger world, and it involves education, building a civil society, [and] dialogue,” Harrington said. “Everything that we would like to see in a religious group, I think.”

‘They’re Good Schools’

Harrington says the movement’s involvement in schools is not surprising, since education is one of the movement’s main focuses.

“Certainly, one of their areas of emphasis is education, and particularly science and technology, so that’s how they build their schools and operate them,” Harrington said. “One of the good things about them is that they gear themselves toward low-income and poor people, and they obviously have a high achievement rate. They’re good schools; there’s no doubt about that.”

Harrington said many of the accusations against the charter schools are “conjured up by Erdogan for political gains.”

Abraham R. Wagner, a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Times earlier in 2016, “In cables divulged by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Department of State described Mr. Gülen as ‘a ‘radical Islamist’ whose moderate message cloaks a more sinister and radical agenda.'”

Wagner writes the FBI “should expand and deepen its investigation to uncover the motives associated with young Turkish men teaching American children—namely the proselytization of American children to Islamist doctrine—when a glut of qualified and credentialed teachers exists.”

Charters ‘Held to the Same Standard’

Dunn says the charter schools in Texas go through a stringent vetting process and are subject to the same standards as traditional public schools.

“The State Board of Education and TEA have a very rigorous application process that all charters go through,” Dunn said. “This past year, there were 27 applications to open new charters in Texas. Only two of them were awarded.

“The charter schools in Texas are held to the same academic standards as traditional school district schools,” Dunn said. “Students take the same assessments. There’s the same financial accountability. Charter schools in Texas are required to have an independent audit annually [and] compliance with state and federal law. They do that just as a traditional school district does.” 

Dunn says it’s important to note the popularity of the charter schools in question.

“Clearly, parents and students across the State of Texas have noticed the work that they’ve done and are impressed by the work that they’re done and want to access those programs,” Dunn said. “These are kids and parents who have examined the program, examined what they’re receiving in the traditional district, and made the conscious decision to attend these schools.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute.