Readers of Friday’s edition of USA Today found out about an issue that Plunderbund readers have known about for some time. It’s nice to know that more folks are now in the loop.
The story, “Turkish Faith Movement Secretly Funded 200 Trips for Lawmakers and Staff,” details the efforts of the Gulen Movement to provide Members of Congress and their staffs with free trips to Turkey that are of questionable legality, based upon U.S. House Ethics Committee rules. The term Gulen Movement describes a number of organizations that follow the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and Turkish exile who lives in relative seclusion in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
An examination of the USA Today article offers some interesting tidbits of information. In addition to the “secretly funded” trips in the headline, readers were told about “$800,000 in free travel for lawmakers,” “the movement’s … funding hundreds of Islamic schools, and think tanks and media outlets,” and that at least one Gulenist organization “provided gifts in the form of impermissible travel expenses to congressional travelers in violation of House rules and regulations.”
If all of this wasn’t enough, there is this:
“The movement has founded hundreds of charter schools across the United States and across the world, has its own media organizations, and was deeply entrenched with the Turkish regime until a falling out two years ago. That led President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare Gulen was running “a parallel state” inside the country with the intent of undermining the government.”
Whether or not Fethullah Gulen is indeed running a parallel government in his native land, there seems to be no question that he and his followers are establishing a “parallel” system of “public” charter schools in the United States, with one source listing 139 schools in operation in 2014. Among these charter schools are 19 in Ohio that are administered under the Horizon and Noble Academy brands.
While the extent of the Gulen charter school network is relatively well-known, the USA Today article does shed more light on the proclivity of such allied groups to influence federal public policy by inviting so many lawmakers to enjoy free junkets to Turkey.
But the Gulen enticements are not limited to federal officials.
In May, Plunderbund featured an examination of the Niagara Foundation, a Gulen allied organization that has sponsored trips to Turkey for members of the Ohio legislature, including Cliff Rosenberger, Speaker of the House, who went on a Gulen trip prior to his election as Speaker. The Niagara Foundation has also sponsored receptions for legislators as another opportunity to curry favor with those who write, sponsor and vote on legislation for the state’s “public” charter schools.
The earlier Plunderbund article raised detailed questions about ethics rules, including whether or not the offer of a foreign trip might constitute a conflict-of-interest for a legislator. In light of the USA Today disclosure regarding questions about trips by U.S. House members, it might be worthwhile to look again at a portion of the Ohio Ethics Law, which, like its federal counterpart, the House Ethics Committee, serves to guide the behavior of legislators and other public officials when there may be a potential conflict-of-interest situation:
No public official shall use a position of authority or influence or office to secure anything of value or the promise or offer of anything of value that may manifest a substantial and improper influence with respect to his/her duties. R.C. 102.03(D)
In light of his contact with Gulen representatives through his all-expenses paid trip to Turkey and the similarity that excursion has with the junkets described in the USA Today article, it might be wise for Speaker Rosenberger to more fully address his engagement with an organization that has extensive foreign ties but relies on taxpayer funds to run a vast network of publicly-funded and privately operated charter schools.
But wait, there’s more.
While we have read much of the hype about the charter school reform measures found in House Bill 2, it appears that few meaningful governance changes were accomplished. And when the subject is charter school governance, that brings us back to the Gulen charter school chain.
In July 2014, the Akron Beacon Journal ran a series of articles examining Ohio charter schools and looked at the governance structure of the Gulen chain. The reporting demonstrated that the operators of the schools showed the same secretiveness in answering questions that was shown in the USA Today article, and board members of Gulen schools were reluctant to answer questions about their citizenship status that were posed by the newspaper staff.
Yes, the USA Today story has helped to raise the same concerns that were shared with members of the Ohio House Education Committee earlier this year. In March, for example, testimony was provided to the committee in the hope that reform legislation in the guise of House Bill 2 would address the inherent structural issues of charter school boards.
Surprise, surprise – that has not happened.
Another Plunderbund piece in August laid out clear reforms needed in charter school law, including the need for charter school board members to be “qualified voters” (viz., citizens), which the Beacon Journal clearly showed was not the case on many Gulen charter boards. Surely Ohioans are at a loss to explain the logic of the new House Education Committee chair, Andrew Brenner, who believes that public education is “socialism” and who favors the need for new Voter ID laws but doesn’t seem to have a problem with non-citizens serving on “public” charter school boards.
Go figure. Wasn’t it Charles Manson who always said that “no sense makes sense”?
If you think it’s crazy to pass a new charter school reform law and not have in it provisions for board members of “public” charter school boards to be qualified voters, that makes no sense. And if you think it’s permissible for federal and state legislators to accept free junkets to Turkey while they consider appropriations for “public” charter schools that have non-citizens on their boards which expend public funds, then that’s also crazy.
So was Charles Manson right after all when he said that no sense makes sense? When the subject is “public” charter schools, no sense does makes sense. That’s a given.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.