The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked education officials in Texas and California to investigate publicly funded charter schools in those states that it says are linked to a Muslim cleric living in the United States, a man the government alleges was the mastermind of a coup attempt this month. The Turkish government also is planning to bring more complaints in other parts of the U.S.
The Erdogan government, through the international law firm Amsterdam & Partners LLP, recently filed a formal complaint with the Texas Education Agency against a charter network called Harmony Public Schools, which operates 46 math, science and technology campuses in Texas and has received more than $250 million in federal and state funds.
Turkey alleges that the Harmony schools are part of a network of more than 160 charter schools in more than 25 states started by Turkish men, all said to be inspired by Fethullah Gulen, the preacher who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania. The complaint in Texas alleges, among other things, that the schools have abused public funds, funneled money to Gulen’s movement — known as Hizmet (or Service) — violated legal requirements surrounding open and competitive bidding, and discriminated against employees on the basis of national origin and gender.
Officials at the Harmony schools — the first of the network of charters said to be Gulen-inspired — have repeatedly denied any connection to Gulen or any intent to proselytize religion at the schools. Soner Tarim, a co-founder and chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools, said the allegations against the successful charter schools are false.
“The government of Turkey is spending millions of dollars on lobbyists and publicists. Just because Registered Foreign Agents keep repeating these allegations, doesn’t make them true,” Tarim said. “No one disputes our success of a 98 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance rate. It is time to look at the facts, not reprint false accusations.”
The D.C. Public Charter School Board allowed a Harmony charter school to open in the nation’s capital in 2014, and the head of the board, Scott Pearson, said he thoroughly investigated claims that the charter is connected to the Gulen movement, first when he was working at the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 and then again when he was with the charter board in 2013. He said he found the allegations untrue.
“In no case did I find any evidence that Harmony schools was operated by people belonging to or associated with the Gulen movement,” he said.
But Robert Amsterdam, an international lawyer hired by the Turkish government to investigate Gulen, said in an interview that he is able to prove that there is a Gulen network of schools.
“I will be able to prove to anyone they are engaged in a massive criminal conspiracy in the United States,” Amsterdam said.
The Texas Education Agency says it is looking into the complaint against the Harmony schools. Earlier this year, the law firm asked the California Department of Education to probe the financial practices of the Magnolia charter schools, which it says also are part of the Gulen network. The California department did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the complaint. Amsterdam said his firm also is investigating schools in several other states — including Florida and Arizona — that it says are part of the network.
The complaints gained steam within the past week, when the Turkish government crushed what it said was a coup attempt by backers of Gulen and immediately blamed him for fomenting unrest in his native country. Gulen came to the United States in 1999, and he is widely seen as a moderate Islamic preacher who opposes radical Muslim organizations, favors good relations with Israel and encourages his followers to open schools.
These charter schools in the United States are said to be part of a worldwide network of at least 1,000 Gulen-inspired (mostly private) schools in countries including Pakistan, Somalia, Australia and Turkey. Gulen is said to highly value education and encourages followers to open schools to help children around the world, reportedly saying in sermons: “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God.”
Erdogan and Gulen were once political allies in Turkey, but the Turkish president now considers Gulen an enemy who has tried for years to overthrow his government through a web of loyalists in the police, judiciary, military and schools. In 2013, Erdogan blamed Gulen for a corruption probe of his government, and his government just asked the United States to either arrest or extradite Gulen, saying he was the leader of the failed coup attempt.
The Turkish government is now cracking down on what it says are Gulen supporters across Turkey, firing tens of thousands of government workers. They include at least 35,000 members of the judiciary, police and military. More than 1,500 university deans were asked to submit their resignations, and more than 15,000 Education Ministry employees were suspended, while 21,000 private school teachers have had their licenses to work revoked.
Gulen won the right to stay in the U.S. after his lawyers told a federal judge in Philadelphia that his followers had inspired the opening of charter schools in the United States, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2011. Gulen released a statement denouncing the coup through his Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit group that calls itself “an umbrella nonprofit organization serving as a voice for civic, culture and service organizations” across the United States.
In remarks to reporters on Saturday at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, a secluded compound in Saylorsburg, Pa., Gulen denounced both the coup and the Turkish government crackdown. The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted him as saying about Erdogan’s reaction to the coup: “They have confiscated properties. They have confiscated media organizations. They have broken doors. They have harassed people in a fashion similar to Hitler’s SS forces,” he said. “They have no tolerance for any group not in their total control.”
Here’s the complaint Amsterdam’s firm filed against Harmony charter schools with the Texas Education Agency on behalf of the Republic of Turkey, and you can find supporting documents here.
And here’s an updated statement in response from Harmony schools:
HARMONY PUBLIC SCHOOLS RESPONDS TO TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY COMPLAINT
(HOUSTON) The allegations filed on May 24th with the Texas Education Agency by an agent of the President of Turkey are nothing more than a politically-motivated re-hash of old claims and complaints that have been heard and investigated previously and found to be without merit.
To be clear about Harmony Public Schools (HPS):
– HPS is a non-profit, academic entity founded in the United States for the sole purpose of providing quality public education for children in Texas.
– Harmony Public Schools have no affiliation of any kind with any religious or social organizations or movements.
– Harmony’s procurement process is done according to Texas state law and is, in fact, outsourced and managed by the Harris County Department of Education.
– Harmony’s rate of teachers under H-1B visas, which are authorized and issued by the U.S. federal government after extensive vetting, is seven (7) percent and decreasing every year.
Harmony Public Schools stands ready to participate fully in any action the Texas Education Agency decides to take, and we are confident that our actions and activities will be found to be consistent with our mission: To provide a high-quality STEM-focused education to Texas school children, particularly in minority and traditionally underserved communities.
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About Harmony Public Schools
Harmony Public Schools are 46 high performing K-12 college preparatory charter schools throughout Texas. Harmony blends the highest standards and expectations, with a rigorous math- and science-centered curriculum and dedicated and engaged teachers and families to cultivate excellence and prepare students to succeed in college, careers and life. At Harmony Public Schools, we believe every child can succeed, and we are committed to helping them realize their full potential. To learn more about Harmony Public Schools and our 46 campuses across Texas, please visit: www.harmonytx.org, and follow us on Twitter at @HarmonyEdu and ‘Like’ us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/HarmonyTexas.