“Ohio is the wild, wild west of charter schools and we need to have charter school reform,” said Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan. “The charter school industry should be held to the same set of standards as our public schools. It’s about educating our children and it’s really so unfair if these dollars are not going back into the classroom.”
Lepore-Hagan has traveled the state, calling for more oversight of charter schools.
She says she isn’t surprised by allegations that money from some of them, including Horizon Science Academy in Youngstown, could be funneling back to a Turkish religious movement.
“We’re not sure where our tax dollars are going. They could be leaving the state or, in this case, leaving the country.”
Concept Schools operates nine Horizon Academies in Ohio. This year, it’ll get more than $35 million in state and federal money for those schools. The one in Youngstown gets $4 million in state and federal funds every year to run its one building.
“They’ve made an incredible amount of money, not only here in Ohio, but across the country,” said State Senator Joe Schiavoni.
The Turkish government claims that Concept Schools has close ties to cleric Fethulleh Gulen, who is currently living in exile in Pennsylvania, and his religious movement. Turkey says the movement is behind the failed coup attempt that killed 300 people earlier this year.
Whether the claims are true or not, Schiavoni says he’s working on a law to force charter schools to open their financial books and reveal how they spend tax money.
“We can make a decision as a community whether or not we want them there and parents can make a decision, an informed decision, whether or not they want to send their kids there.”
In a documentary from 2014, Concept Schools founders said they were inspired by the works of Fethulleh Gulen.
Whistleblowers have informed us that the Gülen organization maintains a rigid hierarchy through which instructions are handed down, usually in face-to-face meetings with Gülen himself in the Poconos. At the top, there is a seven-member governing group (Istisare Grubu), which passes instructions to the consultative committee, which then sends orders to a series of regional imams, down to country imams, regional imams, provincial imams, city imams, district imams, neighborhood imams, imams of the student houses (Işık Evleri), and then students. Businessmen, bureaucrats and military officers all operate at varying levels according to their position and buy in.
Gülen, however, rarely speaks in the imperative. According to one Gülenist interviewed by academic Joshua Hendrick in his book, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, orders are passed down via vague suggestions to be interpreted by his members: “He [Gülen] says, ‘It would be good if it is done,’ he never says, ‘It must be done’ (…) Or he says, for example … ‘Why don’t you open a bank?’ [But] he never says ‘you’ [meaning a specific person] (…) if he [Gülen] says something, they believe that it is very important, and we have to do it.”
But Gülen’s followers have opened a lot more than just banks. Working through these seemingly-impenetrable layers of non-accountability, Gülen’s followers have established some 55,000 businesses worldwide and made themselves the largest charter school operator in the United States, receiving tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds every year, which in many cases are then redirected between and amongst themselves and to selected contractors.
Illegal tributes in U.S. charter schools
One example can be found at California’s Magnolia Public Schools, which was caught handing out a $700,000 annual contract to a Gülen-affiliated contractor sharing its own office space, founded by Magnolia’s then CEO. The CEO then left Magnolia that same year to resume leadership of the contractor he founded, benefiting extensively from his earlier decision to sign that contract. Furthermore, audits conducted by one of Magnolia’s sponsors, LAUSD, questioned whether the contractor was actually providing any services to Magnolia. These kinds of self-dealing arrangements that benefit high-level Gülen members have been documented in every Gülen charter network we’ve investigated so far.
In Oklahoma, a state audit found that Dove Science Academy wasoverpaying its Gülen landlord by more than $3.1 million. Even more shocking, the auditors found that the Dove Science governing board was one and the same as the landlord’s governing board. With the same group of Turkish Gülenists on both sides of the transaction, Oklahoma’s public funds were siphoned out of the charter schools they were intended to support and funneled through the landlord entity for other purposes. One such purpose included an inexplicable $175,000 payment to the Harmony Public Schools charter network in Texas to support a competition that no Dove students attended or participated in.
These illegal tributes are common from smaller Gülen charter networks to Harmony Public Schools, Gülen’s largest operation with 46 schools currently open and another fifteen slated to open over the next two years. They come in the form of payments for licensing software and curriculum Harmony is supposed to provide for free per the terms of its Race to the Top funding and consulting fees for Harmony’s fee-based mentorship. When Gülenists from these smaller networks level up within the Gülen organization, they’re often transferred to Harmony as a promotion, which is odd considering Harmony is supposed to be mentoring these networks, not taking their employees.
Harmony recently entered into a baffling arrangement to overpay its own Gülen landlord entity by $18 million for bonds on new school construction. The brand-new landlord entity, of course, is run by the former budget director of Harmony. The New York Times has previously reported on the similar story of Solidarity Contracting, which landed a lucrative $8.2 million construction contract with Harmony when it was a month-old company with zero revenue and zero experience, run in that case by Harmony’s former business manager.
These charter networks deny affiliation with Gülen despite the fact that they are run exclusively by known Gülenists and contract almost exclusively with Gülenist businesses. The ties are easy to find–tax forms, corporation documents, bond statements and other documents in the public record–identify the same cadre of Gülenists in leadership positions at both charter networks, the vendors that support them, and Gülenist cultural associations. Working in collaboration, these Gülenists successfully remove funds from public education and use them to enrich each other and their overall agenda. These isolated examples discussed above total allegedly almost $28 million of misappropriated U.S. taxpayer dollars, and yet that is barely scratching the surface of what we’ve already found so far.To Understand Turkey's Alleged Coup Plotter, Look To His U.S. Schools