Report: Texas charter school network awarded most contracts to Turkish-owned businesses

Liz Goodwin

A rapidly expanding charter school movement in Texas that educates 16,000 kids awards almost all of its pricey contracting jobs to Turkish-owned businesses, The New York Times reports.

The 33 Harmony schools--which emphasize math and science--receive $100 million in taxpayer funds each year, and are intertwined with followers of the moderate Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. The Times describes the Gulen movement as "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."

Of the schools' 35 contracts worth $82 million since 2009, all but three went to Turkish-owned businesses. In one instance, Harmony awarded a contract to a Gulen-affiliated business at hundreds of thousands of dollars more than other businesses had offered. Several business owners told the Times they weren't told why their cheaper bids were rejected.

The Times says its findings raise questions about whether "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 schools themselves do not teach religion to their diverse student body, and school officials told the Times that contracts were awarded by merit as state law demands.

Last year, USA Today wrote that nationally about 35,000 students attend Turkish-affiliated charter schools, and that virtually all of them "have opened or operate with the aid of Gulen-inspired 'dialogue' groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture." Most of the schools are high-performing, with students scoring well on state standardized tests.

The schools have faced controversy in the past for recruiting hundreds of teachers from Turkey to teach on H1-B visas, which are granted when employers can't find Americans with specific skills for a job. Most of the Texas school's 33 principals are Turkish men. Charter schools--which are embraced by the bipartisan education reform movement--are publicly financed, but have more leeway to experiment with different curricula and teaching techniques.