Dispute over Texas charter school network involves Turkish government


Spending $7 million over a 15-year-period to hire foreign teachers. Paying those teachers as much as $18,000 per year more than their American peers. Awarding multimillion dollar contracts to former employees.

Those are just a few of the allegations that the Turkish government has hurled at the Houston-based Harmony Public Schools in what appears to be a foreign political battle spilling onto Texas soil.

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Attorneys representing Turkey filed a 32-page complaint to the Texas Education Agency in May about the state’s largest public charter school network, whose founders are Turkish-American. The document details accusations of discriminatory employment and unethical contract bidding practices, and ties to Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government.

“That’s a lot of money flowing out to these affiliated companies and the total dollars are north of we think over $150 million,” said John Martin, attorney with international law firm Amsterdam & Partners LLP, about Harmony’s vendors. “There’s every red flag there that there is extensive self-dealing going on.”

Harmony’s chief executive officer Soner Tarim said the charter network — which has 46 campuses in Texas including six in Austin — has been unfairly targeted. A majority of Turkish citizens who live in Texas voted against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2014 and the government thinks Harmony is behind it, he said.

“This is a baseless attack and it is nothing but harassment,” Tarim said. “I am sad to see a foreign agent … not only harass us but our state agencies. I’d rather spend my time to focus on Texas children.”

READ: Can traditional schools learn a lesson from charters’ efficiency?

The Turkish government has hired Martin’s firm to investigate possible illegal activities of Gülen’s followers and possible ties between Gülen and Harmony officials, Martin said. Harmony school leaders deny any links to Gülen.

Conservative Texas activists raised concerns about Harmony’s alleged connection to Gülen in 2011, prompting a legislative committee to examine Harmony. The committee took no action and did not issue any findings.

In the TEA complaint, accusations against Harmony include:

  • The charter network filed 780 visa applications to hire Turkish citizens from 2013 to 2015 and spent upwards of $6.6 million between 2001 and 2015 on visa fees.
  • At least 15 percent of Harmony teachers are Turkish
  • Turkish vendors, including those founded or staffed by former Harmony employees, win bids more frequently than non-Turkish vendors
  • Turkish men are promoted and paid more than American female counterparts. In Austin, a Turkish teacher with a master’s degree and six years of experience is paid $18,000 more than a non-Turkish teacher with the same credentials, the lawsuit alleges.

 

Since 2011, Harmony has been the subject of more than a dozen complaints to TEA, according to records obtained by the American-Statesman, mostly regarding hiccups on how standardized tests were administered and lack of special education services.

In 2014, a former teacher at an Austin campus filed a complaint with the federal government, accusing the school of paying her less than her male colleagues and firing her when she complained. Harmony settled with the woman for $125,000.

READ: Harmony charter schools settle discrimination claim

“When you look at the numbers, it appears that they are still paying some of the Turkish teachers more than their American counterparts, for exactly the same experience,” Martin said. “Look at the big picture.”

Tarim denies the allegations, saying that:

  • Less than seven percent of Harmony’s 3,300 teachers are Turkish. The attorneys assumed teachers were Turkish based on how their names sounded.
  • Attorneys have mistaken the hundreds of visa applications for filings that current visa-holding teachers must make whenever they change teaching positions or move to another school. Harmony applied for 60 visas this year, a third of which were approved. Harmony recruits Turkish teachers for science, technology, engineering and math classes because “there is a well-documented shortage” of such teachers across the U.S.
  • Harmony pays all employees on a scaled system similar to other school districts, basing salaries on teachers’ credentials and years of experience.
  • Harmony chooses the lowest bidder for contracts and the network uses a third party that helps choose vendors to ensure transparency


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