By MerryLynn Gerstenschlager. TEF VP and Education Liaison
Had anyone told me that I would end up spending the bulk of my time during the most recent Texas Legislative Session and Special Session lobbying on Turkish charter schools, technically known as Harmony charter schools, I would have laughed at them.
However, this turned out to be no laughing matter and by the end of the Special Session, the legislature had called for an investigation of all charter schools by the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee.
The forthcoming investigation was precipitated by Texas Eagle Forum’s and Peyton Wolcott’s (Publisher – Public Ed Commentary) unsuccessful efforts to amend legislation that will now allow certain charter schools to use the $25 billion dollar Permanent School Fund (PSF) to guarantee new construction bonds. Public schools already enjoy this privilege. The PSF is also known as the Children’s Textbook Fund.
Peyton Wolcott’s research provided outstanding information throughout session. Upon learning that there are 36 Harmony charter campuses in Texas and that their operators are mostly Turkish men who have been educated and previously employed in Turkey, we dubbed the Harmony charter schools “Turkish charter schools.” We began to scrutinize them in the context of this legislation. Harmony is overseen by the Cosmos Foundation, a non-profit organization that has received a quarter of a billion dollars in Texas taxpayer dollars in the past three years. Note that there are 156 Harmony-related charter schools in the U.S.
Harmony refers to their schools as “charter” as well as “public” schools. On February 1, 2011, “Harmony Public Schools” organized the “Bond Financing for Charter Schools” luncheon at the Austin Omni Hotel. Among the speakers was former Counselor to President George W. Bush, Karen Hughes, who welcomed guests “on behalf of Harmony Public Schools” to talk “about innovative ways to finance school facilities.” Harmony had hired Hughes through Burson-Marsteller, the prestigious marketing firm, to kick off Harmony’s efforts to pass this legislation.
Harmony was scheduled to open a new School of Political Science in Austin in August of 2011. Because Harmony schools emphasize Turkish culture and also take Texas elected officials on free trips to Turkey, we contemplated how American government and the U.S. Constitution might be taught in this school. And with so many Texas teachers looking for work, we wondered why Cosmos has brought 1,300 teachers here from Turkey on H1-B visas?
We were concerned that five members of the Senate Education Committee had accepted a collective total of $15,000, and that seven members of the House Public Education Committee had accepted a collective total of $11,500 in campaign funds from the Texas Charter School Association (TCSA). The TCSA had hired 11 lobbyists to push for this legislation. Among these lobbyists were former State Representative Diane Delisi and former State Senator Kyle Janek. One of the PSF charter school guarantee bills had to pass out of these committees to take on a life in the House and Senate.
The focus on Turkish influence in Texas schools was emphasized when the Senate passed Senate Resolution 85 honoring the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen. Gulen was given asylum in Pennsylvania in 1997 when he was driven out of Turkey by his own government for trying to reinstate a caliphate in this secular nation. Since then, Gulen lives here in self-imposed exile, even though he has been exonerated in Turkey.
In order to protect the $25 billion Children’s Textbook Fund, Texas Eagle Forum and Peyton Wolcott began to lobby that the following fiduciary duty-of-care amendments be placed in the legislation:
1. Proof of U.S. citizenship for all charter school operator board members and top five highest paid administrators (public ISD trustees must be U.S. citizens). 2. Names, titles, and biographies posted online for all charter operator board members and top five highest paid administrators. 3. Check registers posted online (over 70% of local ISD dollars are online).
We advocated for these safeguards because the bills lacked a requirement for accountability and transparency. We had learned that at least two members of the Cosmos Foundation’s current leadership had not paid their franchise taxes, determining them “Not in Good Standing” with the State Comptroller’s Office. As Peyton Wolcott asked: If leadership does not show fiscal responsibility in their personal business, what guarantee did we have that they will show fiscal responsibility while handing public monies?
Another push for the legislation came from Representative Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) who authorized a flyer from the Harmony schools to be placed in all House members’ mailboxes. The Harmony flyer asked House members to vote against our three fiduciary duty-of-care amendments.
The bills to tap into the PSF died during the Regular Session, but were resurrected during the Special Session in June. During that time the New York Times published an article about how the Texas Turkish charter schools spend public monies and highlighted how their construction contracts have been awarded to Turkish owned contractors, even though they had been underbid by other companies. The Times also connected Harmony schools to the followers of Fethullah Gulen.
By the next to the last day of the Special Session, the charter school PSF school bond guarantee legislation had been amended into a critical budget bill that had to pass to meet constitutional requirements. Ultimately, the budget bill passed, but without our three fiduciary duty-of-care amendments.Yes, the bill passed, but apparently, some legislators were catching on to the idea that the Turkish charter schools should come under more scrutiny than they had in the past. Some House members concerned about rural schools and charter schools would not give the critical budget bill their approval until it had been established that charter schools will be investigated during the Interim by the General Investigating and Ethics Committee, chaired by Rep. Chuck Hopson (R-Jacksonville).
Once the investigation begins, I hope that Chairman Hopson will also look into the contrast portrayed in the accompanying photo of two schools in Ft Worth, Texas. The first photo was taken from the campus of Westcreek Elementary School, looking directly across the street to the campus of the Harmony Science Academy. Note how there is no fence around the Westcreek Elementary campus, but an iron fence surrounds the Harmony Science Academy campus.
In the second picture, note Harmony’s signs that say “NO TRESPASSING, NO LOITERING, [and] NO SOLICITING.” Since Harmony charter schools are paid for by taxpayer dollars and are called “Harmony Public Schools,” why do they have a “No Trespassing” sign at the entrance to their schools? And why do they not want to require that their board members seeking the PSF school construction bond guarantee be American citizens just like local school board trustees? Are they genuinely “public” schools?
This brings up another point…the Harmony schools are Texas Education Agency schools, run with taxpayer dollars, that are not controlled by local parents in the form of elected school board trustees. Put another way, these are schools of the state education agency, rather than schools that are accountable to local taxpayers and parents. The accountability is to the state, rather than to local parents. Local control is non-existent, as contrasted to the Westcreek Elementary School across the street that is in the Fort Worth ISD where there is an elected, local school board that is accountable to parents and taxpayers.
I look forward to the upcoming investigation of charter schools. While they have every legal right to experiment with alternative ways of educating students, there can never be a compromise on accountability and transparency in education.
What You Can DoLearn much, much more about the Harmony schools at http://www.peytonwolcott.com/.
Attribution for this article:
Texas Eagle Forum, October/November 2011 – Vol. 24, No. 7
President, Pat Carlson
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