The other day, a (presumably liberal) commentator/sociologist noted that many conservatives really hate Sesame Street, the educational and social values it represented. Here in Texas, conservatives and religious nuts are on an endless crusade to knock the quest for wider knowledge out of the educational system. An education should teach answers, not questions, as well as reshape history, eliminating inconvenient truths from the age of the world to the ride of Paul Revere.
Now a conservative group which, as noted the other day, is pressing for serious changes in Texas schools and universities, turns out to be only one of the powerful groups bent on taking over education in Texas and America.
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.
Professors and businessmen from Turkey? In Texas? Here are some of what the New York Times investigative reporters have found.
The people in charge of creating and administering these new charter schools are part of a "worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement," based on the activism of a single Turkish preacher: "Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam."
They even build the schools using their own, Turkish, contractors -- paid for by public money.
Harmony’s history underscores the vast latitude that many charter school systems have been granted to spend public funds. While the degree of oversight varies widely from state to state, the rush to approve charter schools has meant that some barely monitor charter school operations.
The surprise, of course, is that a quasi-religious, quasi-nationalist Turkish group is involved, but the problem really is that charter schools don't have much if any oversight. Their approval looks like a political decision (albet one that probably involves money crossing palms).
In Washington, concern is growing. A number of charter schools across the country have been accused of a range of improprieties in recent years, from self-dealing on contracts to grade-changing schemes and inflating attendance records to increase financing.
Last year, the inspector general’s office in the federal Education Department cited these complaints in a memo alerting the agency of “our concern about vulnerabilities in the oversight of charter schools.”
The Texas Education Agency has a total of nine people overseeing more than 500 charter school campuses. “They don’t have the capacity at the state level to do the job,” said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Even so, the state’s education commissioner, Robert Scott, last year took the unusual step of granting Harmony permission to open new schools outside the normal approval process.
The charter movement in Texas was enthusiastically initiated and supported by ol' Mr. Corruption himself, Gov. George W. Bush. The current governor, Rick Perry, is a protege and clone of Bush in many ways. Freedom from intrusive community oversight and from the influence of organized labor were keys to the deal.
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.
The goals sound so good. The origins of the effort to create these new schools sounds so good. It depicts itself as an effort to change America's dismal record in teaching science and math. But then local control is replaced by an international team and business interests. It's a top-down kind of deal -- ironically the kind most conservatives say they hate.
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.
Gulen's personal history -- all this is so familiar, isn't it! -- is odd. He kind of had to leave Turkey. He lives in a retreat in Pennsylvania with only "a blanket, some bed sheets and a few prized books." Meanwhile, in Texas at least, his followers are managing to strong-arm their way into construction and food supply contracts. The Times found a reference to the network of Turkish construction and food service in a WikiLeak document.
As for the quality of education they're selling, "judging school quality, of course, is an imprecise business."
But by the measure that Harmony and most charter schools have embraced — scores on the state tests — the Harmony schools seem to be succeeding. Last year, 16 of the schools were deemed “exemplary,” the highest rating, while seven were rated “recognized,” and the other two “academically acceptable.”
Of course, the Texas legislature and Congressional delegation hasn't been overlooked.
Dozens of Texans — from state lawmakers to congressional staff members to university professors — have taken trips to Turkey partly financed by the foundations.
Dissing America isn't very popular. But much of what people don't want to hear is true. One of those sad pieces of news is just how bad the education we offer has become compared to other developed (and not so developed) countries.
I haven't had a chance to hear the whole discussion. Enough, though, to highly recommend a listen to this no-holds-barred examination of what our kids aren't getting and how they're falling behind -- with a particular emphases on the sciences, math, and engineering.
Commenter "GooseNetWork," below, has suggested taking a look at what Sibel Edmonds has said about Fethullah Gulen, the original leader of the charter school plan. Early in the Bush administration, Edmonds was fired as a translator for the FBI for blowing the whistle on some corruption within the translation unit. The case became a cause celebre. Edmonds was supported by a number of senators.
For an interview with Edmonds which explains much of what she found in the FBI, there's a clear piece of reporting at American Conservative in which -- this will be unpleasant for many -- Edmonds also questions the bona fides of the Obama administration. Fairly, I think.
Here's another interview with Edmonds about the Gulen group and the charter school movement.