Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this cover story in today's NYT about Harmony Schools, a large network of 120 charter schools in 25 states, until a friend in Texas sent me this:


I was surprised in some way to find this in the NY Times: a very long article with only a brief mention of academic achievement and no mention of their long waiting lists.  Substitute "Canadian" for "Turkish" and "Christian" for "Islam" and if you read it again no one would care.  This is another article more focused on jobs for adults and not outcomes for kids with a little xenophobia thrown in.  These schools don't cost the taxpayer any more money than another charter school (and less than a public school) and 16 of 19 carry the state's highest rating with above average SAT scores.


Here's an excerpt from the article:

The secret lay in the meteoric rise and financial clout of the Cosmos Foundation, a charter school operator founded a decade ago by a group of professors and businessmen from Turkey. Operating under the name Harmony Schools, Cosmos has moved quickly to become the largest charter school operator in Texas, with 33 schools receiving more than $100 million a year in taxpayer funds.

While educating schoolchildren across Texas, the group has also nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants. The businesses include not just big contractors like TDM but also a growing assemblage of smaller vendors selling school lunches, uniforms, after-school programs, Web design, teacher training and even special education assessments.

Some of the schools' operators and founders, and many of their suppliers, are followers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.

The growth of these "Turkish schools," as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.

Harmony Schools officials say they scrupulously avoid teaching about religion, and they deny any official connection to the Gulen movement. The say their goal in starting charter schools — publicly financed schools that operate independently from public school districts — has been to foster educational achievement, especially in science and math, where American students so often falter.

"It's basically a mission of our organization," said Soner Tarim, the superintendent of the 33 Texas schools.

The schools, Dr. Tarim said, follow all competitive bidding rules, and do not play favorites in awarding contracts. In many cases, Turkish-owned companies have in fact been the low bidders.  


Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas

Published: June 6, 2011

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