By Jennifer Smith Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (from EdWeek) | http://bit.ly/inNVGp
May 20, 2011 - Columbus, Ohio - A group of Ohio charter schools is being scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Labor for its teacher-hiring practices.
Horizon Science academies statewide were asked to provide documents related to their hiring of Turkish school employees using special federal visas in the past several years.
There are three Horizon Science schools in Columbus and 17 statewide. They're part of a network of charter schools called Concept Schools, which also operates Noble Academy in Columbus. The charter network was founded by Turkish scientists. Most of the schools, which also are located in six other states, focus on science, math and technology.
At issue is Horizon's use of federal H-1B visas, which permit the hiring of foreign workers in specialty occupations—typically those requiring college degrees such as engineers, teachers, computer programmers, doctors and physical therapists.
The Labor Department doesn't comment on whether it is conducting an investigation, but it did request documents from the schools, said Scott Allen, a department spokesman.
Concept officials sent a letter to parents and employees on Tuesday explaining that the schools used to pay immigration-related fees for family members of some of its visa-using employees. About $13,000 in expenses were paid on behalf of 19 employees, the letter said.
Employers can pay those fees for employees, but they can't legally use public money for their relatives, so the state auditor issued findings against some Horizon schools in 2001 and 2005 to recover that money. Audit documents show that the Horizon in Columbus was among those dinged in audits, but the money was repaid by 2007.
The letter, signed by Salim Ucan, vice president of Concept Schools, says fewer than 9 percent of all Horizon employees are working using the special visas.
"We will keep up the good work," he wrote in the letter. "We are proud of our teachers ... every single one of them."
Onder Sechen, director of the Horizon Science Academy elementary and middle schools on Morse Road, said media reports of an investigation have been troubling to students.
"There is no pending federal or state investigation that I am aware of about our schools in Columbus," he wrote in an email.
Department of Labor rules say that employers who don't comply with the H-1B visa guidelines can be prohibited from using the visas in the future and be fined between $1,000 and $35,000, depending on the severity of the violation.
Objectives of charter schools with Turkish ties questioned
Charter schools inspired by Fethullah Gulen operate in 100 countries, including the USA.
Q&A: Fethullah Gülen
Fethullah Gulen responded to questions from USA TODAY's Greg Toppo that were submitted through an intermediary.
Q: Would he reflect on his connection to the U.S. public charter schools inspired by the Gulen movement?
Q: Does he take pride in the schools, which are quickly multiplying and are generally high-performing?
Q: How does he feel about the school leaders' recent assertions in the U.S. press that the schools have "no organic connection" to Mr. Gulen or the movement?
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY | http://usat.ly/c4rd6t
8/17/2010 9:36 AM |They have generic, forward-sounding names like Horizon Science Academy, Pioneer Charter School of Science and Beehive Science & Technology Academy.
Quietly established over the past decade by a loosely affiliated group of Turkish-American educators, these 100 or so publicly funded charter schools in 25 states are often among the top-performing public schools in their towns.
The schools educate as many as 35,000 students — taken together they'd make up the largest charter school network in the USA — and have imported thousands of Turkish educators over the past decade.
But the success of the schools at times has been clouded by nagging questions about what ties the schools may have to a reclusive Muslim leader in his late 60s living in exile in rural Pennsylvania.
Described by turns as a moderate Turkish nationalist, a peacemaker and "contemporary Islam's Billy Graham," Fethullah Gülen has long pushed for Islam to occupy a more central role in Turkish society. Followers of the so-called Gülen Movement operate an "education, media and business network" in more than 100 countries, says University of Oregon sociologist Joshua Hendrick.
Top administrators say they have no official ties to Gülen. And Gülen himself denies any connection to the schools. Still, documents available at various foundation websites and in federal forms required of non-profit groups show that virtually all of the schools have opened or operate with the aid of Gülen-inspired "dialogue" groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture. In one case, the Ohio-based Horizon Science Academy of Springfield in 2005 signed a five-year building lease with the parent organization of Chicago's Niagara Foundation, which promotes Gülen's philosophy of "peace, mutual respect, the culture of coexistence." Gülen is the foundation's honorary president. In many cases, charter school board members also serve as dialogue group leaders.
Education officials who are familiar with them say the schools aren't trying to proselytize for Gülen's vision of Turkey. While Turkish language and culture are often offered in the curriculum, there's no evidence the schools teach Islam.
Nelson Smith, former president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, sees no evidence of an "active network. What I do see is a really impressive group of educators."
The Turkish-affiliated schools focus on math and science and often appear as top scorers on standardized tests. Still, lawmakers, researchers and parents are beginning to put the schools under the microscope for hiring practices — they import hundreds of teachers from Turkey each year — and for steps they take to keep their academic profile high.
The schools' unacknowledged ties to Gülen, they say, mock public schools' spirit of transparency.
"That's what I was always asking for," says Kelly Wayment, a former board member and parent at Beehive Science & Technology Academy in Holladay, Utah. He has pressed for more than a year to get the school to acknowledge ties to Gülen. "I said, 'Parents have a right to know.' "
Wayment says Beehive removed him from the board last year after he began investigating the decision to fire a popular Spanish teacher, saying it was based on a single classroom visit by the Tustin, Calif.-based Accord Institute of Education Research, an education services company with ties to a chain of California charter schools inspired by Gülen. He complained to Utah state Rep. Jim Dunnigan, a Republican lawmaker, who launched an audit of charter school governance — the audit is ongoing.
But Beehive's Karlene Welker says Wayment "removed himself (from the board) by pulling his students out of the school."
Utah's State Charter School Board launched an investigation last year after American teachers complained that Turkish colleagues got hiring and promotion preferences.
The charter school board looked into Beehive's ties to Islam and found them "circumstantial," but a financial probe found that the school was $337,000 in the red — and that Accord officials had loaned it thousands. The board last April revoked its charter, but in June voted to keep the school open on probation.
Dunnigan, the state lawmaker who requested the legislative audit, says the financial details, such as personal loans and public funds spent recruiting overseas faculty, are what concern him. "When they're in such financial difficulty, should they spend $53,000 to bring these people over from another country?"
But questions about hiring and academics also have arisen in Arizona, where Daisy Education Corp. runs five schools and has received certifications for 120 H-1B visas for foreign teachers since 2002, records show. In Texas, the Cosmos Foundation has filed 1,157 H1-B applications since 2001. It operates 25 Harmony schools statewide. Since 2001, Harmony has imported 731 employees using H-1Bs, surpassing all other secondary education providers nationwide. Parents last year also accused one Harmony school of "pushing out" underperforming students — a charge the Texas Education Agency confirmed.
Ed Fuller, a University of Texas-Austin researcher, found that Harmony schools throughout Texas had an "extraordinarily high" student attrition rate of about 50% for students in grades six through eight.
"It's not hard to be 'exemplary' if you lose all the kids who aren't performing," Fuller says.
Crossing the line?
At minimum, the rapid growth of the Turkish-affiliated schools shows how the freewheeling world of charter schools has changed the face of K-12 education in the USA.
In most cases, charters are loosely regulated in exchange for improved performance. A few schools are affiliated with religious groups or offer programs that others can't. But in several cases, a school's orientation has forced it to show that it's not crossing lines and endorsing religion. Examples:
•Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a Minnesota charter school authorized by Islamic Relief USA, a Virginia-based aid group. In 2008, the school ran afoul of state officials who said having teachers take part in voluntary Friday prayers could give students the impression that the school endorsed Islam.
•Sacramento City Unified School District in California, which for 12 years has fought a lawsuit that says the city's Waldorf schools are based on the religious beliefs of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
Whether such schools continue to grow is no small question, since President Obama has made charter school expansion a priority.
While the Turkish-affiliated schools disavow any connection to the Gülen Movement, Gülen himself maintains in legal filings that he's the inspiration behind their growth. But William Martin of Rice University in Houston says educators' assertions of "no organic connection" to Gülen are accurate.
Nonetheless, he says their efforts to minimize ties to Gülen, likely from fear of being branded Islamists, bring "unnecessary and probably counterproductive" suspicion. "I do not think they are a sinister organization."
In an e-mail interview, Mehmet Argin, principal of Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy, says his school's parent corporation, Daisy Education Corp., "has no legal or organic ties" with other schools. He cautions against linking charter schools founded by Turkish-Americans directly to the Gülen Movement "just because Turkish-Americans may be inspired by Mr. Gülen."
In an e-mail interview, Gülen denied any direct connection to these schools, rejecting the notion that there is a "Gülen Movement," but acknowledging there may be educators now in U.S. schools who have listened to his philosophy. "I have no relation with any institution in the form of ownership, board membership or any similar kind," he said.
A 'third force'
Gülen has pushed for more dialogue between the Western and Muslim worlds, yet he is a controversial figure in Turkey.
The University of Oregon's Hendrick, whose writings explore the Gülen Movement, calls him "Turkey's most famous religious personality." His movement is considered the nation's "third force" alongside the military and Turkey's ruling Adalet ve Kalkýnma Partisi, or AKP Party.
In 1999, after traveling to the USA for medical treatment, Gülen was charged in Turkey with trying to create an Islamic state. Since then he has remained in Pennsylvania. After the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in 2007 denied his bid for a visa as an "alien of extraordinary ability in education," Gülen sued, saying his followers "had established more than 600 educational institutions" worldwide. He eventually prevailed, earning a green card in 2008. But Turkish educators in the USA continue to disavow their ties.
"Gülen is both the reason behind his schools, and he has nothing whatsoever to do with them," Hendrick says
smf: The Gülen inspired/aligned/affiliated schools chartered within LAUSD are branded the Magnolia Science Academies, numbered 1 through 8: in Reseda, two in Van Nuys, Carson, Venice, Hollywood, Palms and Bell.
The Gülen schools are controversial for a number of reasons - including questions of public funding of religious schools.