Texas’ Charter Schools Ties to Turkey
TDM Contracting was only a month old when it won its first job, an $8.2 million contract to build the Harmony School of Innovation, a publicly financed charter school that opened last fall in San Antonio.
It was one of six big charter school contracts TDM and another upstart company have shared since January 2009, a total of $50 million in construction business. Other companies scrambling for work in a poor economy wondered: How had they qualified for such big jobs so fast?
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….
…The charter school movement did not begin in Texas, but the state embraced it with ideological fervor in the late 1990s as a pet project of the governor at the time, George W. Bush. The schools’ independence from local school boards and union contracts, the theory went, would free them to become seedbeds of educational achievement in a landscape of underperforming failure.
While Texas charter schools must meet core curriculum standards, they may emphasize some subjects over others, as Harmony does with math, science and technology. They do not have to hew to standard public school calendars or hours. They may — and some do — pay teachers less than the standard state-mandated salaries. (In exchange for this flexibility, the schools get less state money than regular schools, with various calculations showing an annual difference of between $1,000 and $2,000 per pupil.)
David Bradley, a member of the Texas Board of Education, served on the panel that reviewed the early charter proposals. “The only requirement was that you expressed an interest,” he said, adding, “The first time Harmony came forth, they had a great application, and they were great people.”
One of those people was Yetkin Yildirim, who had arrived from Turkey in 1996 to attend the University of Texas in Austin. He also worked as a volunteer tutor in local high schools. The idea for the Harmony schools was born, he said, when he and friends — including Dr. Tarim — saw how much less rigorous the American high schools were in teaching science and math.
“Then we realized that something can be done,” said Dr. Yildirim, now a University of Texas professor specializing in asphalt technology. They spent a year writing their proposal, and in 2000 the group opened its first school, in Houston.
The schools represented the expansion of a mission that had already created hundreds of schools — and a number of universities — in Turkey and around the world. According to social scientists who have studied them, these schools have been the primary vehicle for the aspirations of the Gulen movement, a loose network of several million followers of Mr. Gulen, who preaches the need to embrace modernity in a peace-loving, ecumenical version of Islam. At the center of his philosophy is the concept of “hizmet” — public service.
The movement is also influential in Turkish politics and controls substantial commercial holdings, including a bank, Asya; one of Turkey’s largest daily newspapers, Zaman; and an American cable television network, Ebru-TV, based in New Jersey….
…Around the country, the most persistent controversy involving the schools — and the one most covered in the news — centers on the hundreds of Turkish teachers and administrators working on special visas.
The schools say they bring in foreign teachers because of a shortage of Americans qualified to teach math and science. Of the 1,500 employees at the Texas Harmony schools this year, Dr. Tarim said, 292 were on the special “H-1B” visas, meant for highly skilled foreign workers who fill a need unmet by the American workforce.
But some teachers and their unions, as well as immigration experts, have questioned how earnestly the schools worked to recruit American workers. They say loopholes have made it easy to bring in workers with relatively ordinary skills who substitute for American workers.
“I think they have a preference for these H-1B workers,” said Dr. Ronil Hira, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has studied the visa program. “It may be a preference for a variety of reasons — lower wages or a network where they’ve got family or friends and connections and this is a stepping stone for them to get a green card.”….
….The Turquoise Center opened in 2008, financed partly through donations from Gulen followers, who on average tithe 10 percent of their income, experts say. The money, Dr. Hendrick wrote in his dissertation, goes “to pay for a student’s scholarship, to provide start-up capital for a new school, to send a group of influential Americans on a two-week trip to Turkey or to sponsor an academic conference devoted to Fethullah Gulen.”
Dozens of Texans — from state lawmakers to congressional staff members to university professors — have taken trips to Turkey partly financed by the foundations.
One group, the Raindrop Foundation, helped pay for State Senator Leticia Van de Putte’s travel to Istanbul last year, according to a recent campaign report. In January, she co-sponsored a Senate resolution commending Mr. Gulen for “his ongoing and inspirational contributions to promoting global peace and understanding.”
In an interview, Ms. Van de Putte described the trip as a working visit.
The Raindrop Foundation says its mission is to promote Turkish culture in America. It sponsors cooking classes, traditional Turkish dinners and performances of the Whirling Dervishes, a dance group associated with Sufi Muslim tradition. It also organizes an annual Turkish Language Olympiad where 6,000 students, many from Harmony schools, compete in Turkish language, poetry, dance and singing contests.
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By John Nazarian
©Straight Talk with John J. Nazarian, Private Investigator
January 20, 2016
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