by David Safier
Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy charter school gets a fair amount of praise for its students' academic achievement as well as criticism for its connections to the Turkish-based, moderate Islamic Gulenist movement. Yesterday's NY Times has a long, critical article about the 33 charters in Texas with similar ties.
[NOTE: Before I go further, let me make it clear my criticism here will be less about the Turkish and Islamic connections of these schools than with a pervasive problem with the whole charter school movement. The nationwide underregulation of charters leads to schools spending government funds with favored business partners and often hiring faculty with motives other than giving their students the best possible education. The Texas schools in the NY Times article share those characteristics with many other charters.]
The article is about 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."
The quality of education at the schools isn't challenged in the article. Though some school scores are below the state average, there is no discussion of the socioeconomic levels of the students to put the numbers in perspective. (Tucson's Sonoran Science has consistently high test scores, due in great part to the quality of students it attracts.)
The schools have funneled $50 million in construction contracts, the vast majority of its construction business, to TDM, which happens to be run by Turkish-Americans. They bring in lots of teachers from Turkey to work at their schools. And they purchase teacher support, assessment and curriculum from companies run by Turkish-Americans.
None of this is illegal, unless there are bidding irregularities. But it's typical of the incestuous relationships in too many charter schools. Family ties and intimate business relationships often trump wise use of funds or hiring of staff. That's all fine and good if it's done in private enterprise -- if your profits plummet because of unwise spending and hiring decisions, that's your problem -- but when the dollars per student are coming from the government and the schools are functioning as tuition-free public schools, that's a serious problem indeed. The whole charter school system is rife with financial flimflam. How charter school's money should be spent is poorly defined, and government regulation is spotty to nonexistent.