Yes, Why Not Talk Truthfully About Certain Charter Schools in Texas?


(Note: Sharon Higgins appears in the documentary "Killing Ed.")

The Huffington Post recently published a piece by Anna Clark about "Killing Ed," a new documentary by Mark S. Hall. A few days later, David Dunn, Executive Director of the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA), responded to Ms. Clark's post.

What is quite striking is how Mr. Dunn totally avoided addressing Ms. Clark's major point of concern: Harmony Public Schools' ties to the highly secretive and controversial Gulen Movement. The question is why?

At this point in 2016, avoidance and denials of the Harmony/Gulen relationship are a tired and laughable response. Either TCSA has its head buried in the sand or perhaps it's pursuing a peculiar strategy of damage control in an attempt to save its own reputation. Or maybe its defensive response on Harmony's behalf is simply a PR benefit of TCSA membership (Harmony's annual dues are likely to be considerable).

Anyone who's studied the Gulen Movement and its presence in the US understands that Harmony's connection to the Gulen Movement is no longer in question. Even friends of the Gulen Movement sometimes 'spill the beans,' as did noted Austinite James C. Harrington while being interviewed about Fethullah Gulen and the Movement at a Gulen-linked TV station in 2012: "We have a system in Texas called Harmony and there's a system in the Midwest and all that..." (note in this video at 4:22 min.)

Undoubtedly, the Midwest "system" Harrington referred to is Concept Schools, an Illinois-based charter school management organization currently under FBI investigation.

Charter school advocates like TCSA hold up "school choice" as the ideal. However, by acting as codependents for a group that traditionally and habitually engages in a strategy of opacity, those advocates actually prevent parents from being able to make a fully informed choice. Along those lines, as just one quick example, shouldn't parents be allowed to know that some of their children are regularly taught to memorize a musical version of one of Fethullah Gulen's poems?

Now about the oft made claim by supporters that charter schools are really "public" schools.

As taxpayer funded but privately managed, charter schools can at best be viewed as a hybrid between true public schools and private schools - not a horse, not a donkey, but a mule. Any group of private individuals can potentially operate a charter school, even members of a politically savvy, cult-like, "non-transparent organization" (per Dr. Joshua Hendrick of Loyola U-Maryland, a Gulen Movement-expert), a very specific religious community with its own notions that originated in Turkey several decades ago and has now spread across the globe.

It must be mentioned that the three-to-six million member Gulen Movement is incredibly controversial in Turkey, and has been for many years. In fact today they are considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government and their leader a terrorist. Turkey's population is nearly 79 million - 98 percent of whom are Muslim - so it should be clear that the deep concerns that arise about this group do not necessarily stem from Islamophobia.

Teasing out the truth about the Gulen Movement is going to be a difficult thing to do, as the Movement has been closely controlling the message about itself here in the US. But hints about how it operates are increasingly leaking out, e.g. here and here. Even Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark weighed in on this group's involvement in charter schools during a recent CNBC interview.

So considering the magnitude of the Gulen Movement's involvement in the US charter school sector today, shouldn't American taxpayers and their political leaders be talking and debating much more about this unusual phenomenon?

And now onto charter school wait lists.

First of all, keep in mind that claims of high wait list numbers are a way to market charter schools to parents, as well as to justify the sector's expansion. Second of all, keep in mind that there is no independent way for any of these wait list numbers to be verified by outsiders.

In 2013 in an attempt to tease out the truth, the Associated Press (AP) conducted its own survey of charter school wait lists in Texas following a TCSA survey. It found fewer students than TCSA and in its resulting article stated: "... neither the charter school association nor the AP controlled for families who have applied to more than one charter school operator and are therefore counted multiple times. Determining the exact number of duplications is impossible because federal privacy laws prohibit schools from divulging who is on their waitlists. But parents who have been denied admission to charter schools run by one operator say they routinely apply elsewhere."

Very worthwhile and related reading is a 2014 policy memo written by Dr. Kevin Welner at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education (professor specializing in policy and law) and Dr. Gary Miron of Western Michigan University (professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University). Its title is "Wait, Wait. Don't Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to Be Skeptical About Charter Waitlist Numbers."

Until each of those nine reasons can be resolved by greatly improved policies and increased oversight, it would be wise to take all charter school waitlist numbers with a grain of salt.