Big questions about proposed Loudoun charter school

The Loudoun County School Board is getting close to deciding whether to approve its (and possibly Northern Virginia’s) first charter school, a proposed math-science academy that critics allege has ties to a Turkish Islamic preacher and a network of like-minded charters across the United States. But, it turns out, questions about ties to the influential preacher, Fethullah Gulen, are not the most immediate issue facing the board with this application.

What is most pressing is the fact that the Turkish men applying to open the school have had trouble answering, to the satisfaction of board members, questions about budget, curriculum, student transportation, and other basic elements that go into running a school. Recent hearings before a three-member select committee of the board revealed gaping holes in the planning of this proposed school.

A look into one area, curriculum, reveals the problem. At one of the hearings, applicants were questioned in part about a seeming incoherence in their proposed curriculum. Then, a week later,  the applicants junked that curriculum plan and presented a new one: using Loudoun’s own “scope and sequence” (which allows consistency of instruction in each subject through the grades) along with curriculum they said they would purchase from Pearson, the world’s largest education company. This new “vision” was delivered at a hearing last Thursday, a week before the select committee is set to decide on its recommendations to the full board.

The applicants say that the curriculum won’t really be developed until well after the full Board of Education is likely to make a decision on whether the school can open, sometime in February. That’s a problem, said board vice president Jill Turgeon, a teacher and, it is worth noting, an enthusiast of charter schools — at least those with fully drawn-out  plans.

To understand just how fluid the vision for this school is, consider that it was only last Wednesday that the applicants dumped on the board members 400 pages of information related to the application. (The new data within those pages was not, it was noted at the hearing, red-lined for the benefit of the board members.) Inexplicably, about half of the 400 pages were documents directly related to the charter school in Anne Arundel that the Loudoun applicants run and are using as a model for the Loudoun school. Many of the documents don’t seem to have any application to the Loudoun school.

The Anne Arundel school, the Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School, has had academic success but has clashed repeatedly with the Anne Arundel education officials on big issues. The school is suing the district, alleging that it has been underfunded. Meanwhile, the school won a three-year extension on its contract this past summer though it’s not entirely clear why, given all the problems cited by the county superintendent, Kevin Maxwell. In a June post I noted:

Maxwell wants the school, among other things, to hire qualified and fully certified teachers, allow parents to elect the board of directors “to reflect the community it serves,” use appropriate procurement and bidding processes for outside contracts, use the same data system that other public schools in the country use, follow board policy for the hiring of foreign nationals, and agree not to allow any of its contractors or subcontractors to “knowingly employ” anybody who has been investigated for criminal activity.

 

Those are pretty serious problems.

A group of Loudoun residents is opposing the Loudoun application in large part because of concerns that the applicants of the proposed charter are connected to Gulen and his educational network. The applicants deny it. I asked Sinan Yildirim, who is listed as one of the members of the proposed school’s initial Governing Board, about the Gulen-related opposition and whether he and his compatriots have any connection to Gulen. He said, “We said no. They said yes. If they claim something they have to prove. And they can’t prove it.”

Many of the issues Maxwell raised have been cited by authorities around the country about some of the 135 charter schools in some 25 states believed to be run by followers of the reclusive Gulen. Believed to have strong influence in Turkey, Gulen himself now lives  in seclusion in Pennsylvania, having won a petition to emigrate to the United States. Initially the Department of Homeland Security denied his request for a special visa, but in a lawsuit  he filed in 2007 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, his attorneys wrote  that he was “head of the Gulen Movement,” and an important educational figure who had “overseen” the creation of a network of schools in the United States as well as in other countries,  the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in this story. He was granted a green card in 2008.

The FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education have been investigating whether some employees at some U.S. charter schools are “kicking back part of their salaries” to the Gulen Movement, the  Inquirer reported. The New York Times and CBS News as well as PBS have reported on the Gulen charter network in the last 18 months, citing problems such as whether these schools give special preference to Turkish companies when handing out contracts.

Officials at the Anne Arundel school have denied that they are related to the Gulen Movement. Students there have the option of taking Turkish-language classes and visiting Turkey with their teachers, my colleague Emma Brown wrote in this story, and routinely participate in the Turkish Olympiad — an international contest in poetry, singing and folklore — as well as local and national competitions in science and math.

If you go to the  website of the  Loudoun Math & IT Academy, it declares that the academy, “will be a public charter school in Loudoun County that will serve grades 6 through 12 with an academic program focusing on Mathematics and Information Technologies.”  Some county residents have received a mailer saying that the charter is coming  to Loudoun.

Such optimism is undeserved — at least if the decision is made on more than wishful thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | December 10, 2012