I'm not a real investigative journalist, but I play one on the Internet!
Yesterday, I got into an informative e-mail exchange with the author of an investigative article for the New York Times. Staff reporter Stephanie Saul had one of the day's top stories on the Times' website exploring, of all things, a Turkish invasion of the public school system in Texas.
Good grief, I though to myself - what is that all about?
Living in Perfect Harmony?
Seems as though for the past decade, a group called the Cosmos Foundation has been building - literally - a little empire of charter public schools in the Lone Star State. Started by an elite clique of Turkish professors and businessmen, the Cosmos Foundation has been able to impress legislators across Texas with promises of stellar academic achievement at relatively low taxpayer expense. And here in Texas, where many residents take great pride in their conservative, anti-tax mindsets, anything that can be done to kill two birds with one stone, such as paying for a much-reviled public school system on the cheap, sounds like a good deal.
Except in this case, we might be getting what we're paying for.
As it happens, some prominent leaders of the Cosmos Foundation are devout followers of a moderate yet politically-driven Turkish guru named Fethullah Gulen and his eponymous sect of Sufi Islam. Gulen himself lives in a retirement home in Pennsylvania, having been kicked out of Turkey, but his followers run educational organizations around the world in his name. And their biggest presence in the United States has come in the form of taxpayer-funded charter schools. Which in Texas, are branded with the blithely blissful name of "Harmony."
Harmony! I knew I'd heard that name in relation to a school before. There is a Harmony school being constructed in far southwest Dallas, near a recently-developed area of middle-class subdivisions. Some friends of mine live close by, and another friend sells brand-new custom homes in the area. None of my friends, however, know much about the group building this sprawling, multi-story "Harmony" campus straddling a prime hilltop with sweeping views. They know it's a charter school, but it's not like any public school - charter or not - that's been built in north Texas before.
|The entrance rotunda remains incomplete, despite the atypical gold-framed portraits of state officials already hung on the walls.|
For a public facility, it also appears that construction methodologies have been rather slipshod. As I've passed by to visit my friends in the area, I've noticed interior walls being constructed - presumably with drywall - before windows were installed, which didn't make much sense. Builders have also strung an expensive ornamental fence along most - but not all - of the property, which means it's not securing anything. In these days of tight education budgets, it seems too lavish an expense for just another public school.
Jobs for the Boys?
Which brings up one of the main points from Saul's story. The Turks running Harmony schools have made a noticeable habit of hiring Turkish contractors to build many of their campuses, regardless of whether they submitted the lowest bid, or were qualified to do the work. Harmony administrators have also been accused of relying on teachers imported from Turkey, instead of hiring American educators. In a time when American schools are laying off highly-skilled and tenured staff, why does Harmony feel the need to look to Turkey for teachers?
Granted, some of the growing concern about the Harmony schools might be a result of pro-union sentiment, with construction and teacher unions feeling threatened by Harmony's preference for fellow Turks. But Texas is a right-to-work state, one of the least-union-friendly states in the country, so if the concern over Harmony schools was mostly union-driven, it would have already been considered as little more than a tempest in a teapot down here.
Although, actually, it seems the debate is just beginning.
Doesn't Something Seem Fishy?
Saul's article triggered an avalanche of responses from readers, many of whom blasted her and the Times for publishing what they viewed as a biased piece of junk journalism. Of course, reader responses can never be considered a substitute for legitimate journalism, because corroborating the identity and intent of respondents is almost impossible.
But they can indicate how disconnected people may be from reality.
For example, parents claimed that putting their kids in their neighborhood's new Harmony schools was producing miraculous results in terms of scholastic achievement. But one wonders if their choice had been between Harmony and a poorly-rated public school, might their imagination tell them a big quality difference exists even when in reality, it doesn't?
Parents also insisted that the Harmony curriculum wasn't laced with Gulen theology or propaganda, as if cultish brainwashing always takes place out in the open. They also failed to recognize that the Harmony schools have only existed for a decade - many for less than five years - while sophisticated indoctrination programs take far more time than that to evolve.
But it's not the questionable educational improvements or the opportunistic Gulen propaganda that alarms Harmony's critics across Texas. They question the accounting practices of Harmony's administrative protocols, and whether construction bid-letting is proceeding in a legal, fiscally-responsible manner. Are employment and immigration standards being maintained? And should Texas be, in effect, off-shoring so much public education when some experts aren't even sure if the whole charter school experiment is living up to expectations?
Having the Gulen movement playing a prominent role in this mix of questions and suspicions only exacerbates the situation. Some church/state advocates have grown uneasy that so much taxpayer money has been awarded to adherents of a specific religious organization. After all, Harmony schools not only give preferential treatment to Turkish contractors, but also Turkish companies that furnish food, uniforms, and equipment to the Harmony campuses. Many of these firms are owned by followers of Gulen, which means Texas is, in effect, funding Gulen by virtue of the millions in public funds being diverted to Gulen's adherents.
Now, of course, for years, Texas has paid Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic contractors to build schools, and nobody's ever brought up the religious angle before. But none of these Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics used their profits to directly fund such a secretive group as Fethullah Gulen.
Plus, in lean economic times, is it wise for Texas to farm out expensive contracting work to overseas companies? Several years ago, Governor Rick Perry wanted to give a multi-billion-dollar toll road project to a Spanish contractor, and it practically cost him his job. What's different now?
During my e-mail conversation with Saul, she mentioned that she had no record of the contractor building the Dallas campus, but was intrigued with what little I'd told her about the project. Since I had some time in my schedule yesterday, I took it upon myself to visit the Harmony school site in Dallas, which is only 20 minutes away from my home. I took the photos you see in this essay, and poked around the building for a bit to see what I could see.
First, as the campus is called the "Harmony School for Nature and Athletics," I was puzzled to find only a tennis court on the property. Here in Texas, athletics means football, with a running track and baseball diamonds thrown in to create the illusion of sports diversity. But on this hilltop site, all they had room for was the tennis court. Maybe somewhere inside the three-story building they've included an indoor swimming pool, or a gymnasium, but from the layout of the building, it doesn't look like it.
So OK, they got that wrong: it's not suited for athletics. Maybe Turks think athletics is just ping-pong.
Just inside the main doors, there's a framed plaque on the wall in the interior entryway. It's from the Texas State Senate heralding the school's opening this past January. But the building is not finished, nor does it appear to have been in any condition to hold classes.
Beyond the interior entryway, a rotunda area is still an active construction site, despite the gaudy framed portraits of state officials lining the walls, and black vinyl furniture collecting construction dust. A discarded paper chain hangs forlornly from part of the ceiling, and upper floors feature bare metal studs and lots of dangling wires.
Debris of some sort was drifting down from the upper floors, so I decided that I'd be better off outside of the building, since even though I could hear workers talking in Spanish from somewhere down the darkened halls, I couldn't see anybody. Instead, I took a moment in the Texas heat to wander around outside, and came upon an exterior corner where the concrete foundation and the stucco wall didn't quite meet. I noticed that the thin pink tiles stuck onto the exterior walls looked like what you and I would line our bathrooms with. And several windows - yes, they're now installed - were missing flashing, opening up the wall cavity to the elements. But then, I'm not a construction worker, so I don't know if what I saw indicates significant problems, or if they're still on the wrap-up punchlist.
From a small sign at the half-gated entrance I discovered a notice that the contractor is Osman Oskan with EGE Construction. I looked up their website, and it's pretty incomplete; not exactly the hallmark of a conventionally relevant company.
Or at least, one that likes to publicize itself. Why do you suppose that is?
Next: Part 2 of 2