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ICYMI: Turkish charter schools on “60 Minutes”

The national news program “60 Minutes” had a piece [1] Sunday on the growing number of public charter schools connected to Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Turkish Islamic cleric that preaches a moderate form of Islam from his retreat in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains.

North Carolina already one charter school that falls in this category – the Triad Math and Science Academy [2] — and a second slated to open this fall in Raleigh, the Triangle Math and Science Academy [3].

(The [Raleigh] Independent had an excellent article [4] back in January about the proposed Raleigh charter school and is well worth a read.)

Click here [1] to see Lesley Stahl’s “60 Minutes” piece.

Tolerance and an emphasis on the sciences are the main tenets of the Gulen movement, which have been connected to 130 charter schools run by Turkish immigrants around the country, according to the 60 Minutes piece.

Students at the schools tend to test better than their public school cohorts.

Religion, and specifically Islam, aren’t taught at the public schools, though some of the more xenophobic and Islamophobic critics of the schools have focused on Gulen’s prominence as an Islamic cleric and questioned if the schools leaders have motives other than educating American children.

In her piece, Stahl broached two of the major worries about the Gulen-inspired schools – that the charter schools are improperly using teacher work visas to bring Gulen followers into the U.S. on work visas, and that the public charter school’s teachers kickback part of their salaries to support the Gulen movement. Neither has been proven, though federal probes have looked into the improper visa allegations in other states.

Lesley Stahl: And that the whole idea is just to get Turks to come into the United States and this is an easy avenue for them.

David Dunn: Which is just categorically not true.

David Dunn of the Texas Charter Schools Association says that because of a deficit of qualified Americans, the schools bring in math and science teachers from Turkey, as this list of visa applications indicates. Problem is –

Lesley Stahl: We’ve seen that some of these visas for Turkish teachers to come here are for English – for them to teach English. How does that make any sense?

David Dunn: I’m not aware of that. I don’t– I can’t, I can’t comment on that. I don’t know. I have not looked intimately into the visas they bring in.

Lesley Stahl: We have English teachers in this country.

David Dunn: English teachers are typically not part of the critical — or the deficit.

One interesting aspect of these schools that wasn’t dealt with in depth in the piece is how the public school money flows to vendors that have connections to the Turkish leaders of the schools.

The Texas where many of the contracts and services of the Harmony network schools are kept within the Turkish immigrant community, according to this June 2011 New York Times article [5].

DM 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 [6] 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.

While educating schoolchildren across Texas, the group has also nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants. The businesses include not just big contractors like TDM but also a growing assemblage of smaller vendors selling school lunches, uniforms, after-school programs, Web design, teacher training and even special education assessments.