Dis-Harmony From the Right

Austin ISD gets caught in right-wing fight over Turkish programs

Dis-Harmony From the Right

Texas Republicans are infamously fond of religious charter schools – unless, of course, the religion in question happens to be Islam. During the recent legislative session, GOP hardliners were willing to sabotage a pro-charter measure to take a potshot at one charter provider just because of rumblings in the conservative blogosphere over its connections to Turkish Muslims.

Harmony Public Schools opened its first school in Texas in 2000 and now has more than 30 campuses and academies statewide (including four in the Austin area) focusing on science and math education. All have reached at least the minimum state standard of "academically acceptable," with the majority classified as "exemplary" or "recognized." As a charter provider, Har­mony's campuses will be able to take advantage of reforms passed during the legislative special session allowing charter schools to use the Permanent School Fund to guarantee their bonds, much like regular independent school districts. David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, called the reforms "huge" for cutting costs. State-backed districts like Austin have regularly reached AA or AAA bond ratings, "and the best a charter school's been able to get has been triple-B plus," he said, meaning they either cannot afford to issue bonds or they pay more in the bond market. However, the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas State Teachers Association both warned against leveraging the already overstretched Permanent School Fund to arrange cheaper loans for private charters, no matter their faith or creed.

That boon to charters was not enough to overcome fundamentalist fears of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish-born investor that the religious right has painted as a Muslim Warren Buffett. Gülen subscribes to a traditionalist rather than secular or modern reactionary form of Islam and advocates for improved relations between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. Yet a veritable cottage industry of anti-Harmony bloggers has erupted, branding them "Gülen schools" that secretly brainwash Dick and Jane into radical Islam.

Austin ISD has been caught in the periphery of this fight. Curt Olson, with Texas Public Policy Foundation front operation Texas Budget Source, accused the district of not showing "due diligence" after Super­in­tendent Meria Carstarphen and 10 other staff members visited Turkey last December during a fact-finding trip organized by the Rain­drop Turkish House charitable foundation – a Turkish cultural group also connected to Gülen. In the last year, Raindrop has helped establish pilot Turkish cultural and language programs at O. Henry and Martin middle schools as well as Bryker Woods Elementary. AISD Chief Academic Officer Ramona Trevino said Raindrop is "working in partnership with us to develop language curriculum" and that it plans to provide an afterschool program at Austin High next year, which could become a foreign language credit course. Under the National Security Language Initia­tive, the U.S. State Department has classified Turkish as one of seven languages in which the U.S. is critically short of speakers. Trevino also noted that AISD only provided in-kind support and that Raindrop funded the pilot projects.

However, this comes at a time when the district is making major strategic decisions about curriculum, driven by finances. During this year's reduction in force, AISD cut language provisions at several campuses, shelving a successful Japanese program at O. Henry while it was hosting the Turkish pilot. Trevino said that the district would "love to see all Latin, German, Japanese, and other languages have options provided in the same manner for the benefit of AISD students in these challenging economic times." However, this raises the question of how dependent the district is prepared to become on the whims and goodwill of external funders.

If those all sound like relatively innocuous fiscal concerns, then the conservative blogophere will tell you that's what "they" want you to think.

Conservative education writer Donna Garner (who achieved notoriety a few years ago for demanding that the Texas Education Agency take The Catcher in the Rye off the syllabus) has accused Gülen of a "frog in the boiling water" conspiracy, and that by attending "his" schools, American children will be subtly "indoctrinated into pro-Islam/anti-American thinking." After the Texas Eagle Forum started banging the same drum, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and several other Republicans voted for the school finance reforms in Senate Bill 1 on the sole condition that the House General Investi­gat­ing & Ethics Committee investigate Har­mony. However, little has materialized beyond that nebulous promise: Staff for Chair Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, confirmed that no action had been taken yet and noted that the chair has ultimate authority over what will be examined or even if hearings will be held.

Harmony Public Schools CEO Soner Tarim has denied any "organic relationship ... nor any sort of financial relationship" between Gülen and Harmony. As for the investigation, he told the Chronicle that he welcomed the opportunity to show the quality of the group's work "whether it is in our curriculum, our classrooms, or our business practices." But Tarim was concerned about the climate of criticism coming from the right. He said, "Because they cannot really criticize us on performance, they are resorting to innuendo, name-calling, and fearmongering."

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Harmony Public Schools, Austin ISD, Turkey

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