It’s been one hell of a week for charter school proponents in the Buckeye State. And in light of all that’s happened these past few days with the largest charter school of them all, Ohio citizens, watching a spectacle that continues to grow, might be scratching their heads in wonder and saying heaven help us.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, another spectacle, in the form of an attempted military coup, led its president to observe that in fact the action, which reportedly caused the deaths of at least 265 people and the arrest of 3,000 of that country’s citizens, was a “gift from God.”
What in heaven is the possible connection between a dispute over charter school money in Ohio and an attempted military takeover of the civilian government in Turkey? Let’s follow both of these developing spectacles by following the money trail.
First, ECOT, an online school that consumes more than $100 million in public tax dollars annually, is the subject of an audit by the Ohio Department of Education to determine its actual enrollment. The school, founded by William Lager, a top contributor to the Ohio Republican Party, faces increased scrutiny in light of audits of at least three other online charter schools, whose enrollment figures don’t match the numbers previously reported for them and which form the basis for their state aid.
The extent of the seemingly faulty attendance calculation methods (or lack thereof) for online charter schools like ECOT was demonstrated a few months ago when, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “scrutiny of online attendance increased after the Department of Education discovered that Provost Academy, an online charter school with an office in Columbus, agreed to return about $800,000 of the $1 million it received in state aid during the 2014-2015 school year.”
But that figure is chump change compared to ECOT, where the school has received more than $1 billion in state funds since its debut. With millions at stake, the school and its politically connected allies are pushing back, saying they won’t turn over any more attendance and other records without a court order.
Meanwhile, after what the New York Times described as “a night of chaos and intrigue,” Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan “blamed the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania…” for the coup attempt which also damaged part of the Parliament building in Ankara, the capital.
Erdogan did not mince words in blaming Gulen. “I have a message for Pennsylvania. You have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.”
Forget about the Keystone State for a moment. Where is the message for Ohio in all of this “chaos and intrigue”?
Fethullah Gulen is a name that is quite familiar with those critical of Ohio’s network of charter schools. He is the leader of an international movement that, among other activities, operates a network of schools around the world, with about 150 of them publicly funded charter schools in the United States. Most are found in Texas, where 33 schools were reported as operating in 2011 (45 in 2014 in a later report), and an additional 19 are found in Ohio, established under the Horizon and Noble brands. Click here for a state-by-state list of all Gulen schools operating in this country.
Since charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated, they are the subject of scrutiny because even though the schools themselves are required to be non-profit entities, the management companies that operate them are mostly for-profit enterprises that don’t accept full transparency and accountability for their operations, as do public school districts.
Due to their ties with the Gulen Movement, Horizon and Noble Academies were examined in July 2014 by the Akron Beacon-Journal, which made this observation about the Ohio charter school chain with international connections:
“The schools are run almost exclusively by persons of Turkish heritage, some of whom are not U.S. citizens — a new twist in Ohio’s controversial charter-school movement.
In addition, the Horizon and Noble academies, run by Chicago-based Concept Schools, are related through membership, fundraisers and political giving to the nonprofit Niagara Foundation, which provides trips to Turkey for state, local and federal lawmakers.”
Many citizens are dismayed when they learn that current Ohio law does not require members of charter school boards to be qualified voters, viz. American citizens. The hypocrisy found among charter proponents is that they refer to them as “public charter schools,” yet don’t seem to have a problem with requiring individuals who sit on public boards and who vote to spend public money to be citizens of this country.
On March 17, 2015, testimony was provided to the Ohio House Education Committee pointing out this very problem, yet neither Andrew Brenner, now chairman of the panel, nor any of his Republican colleagues, expressed any concern with rectifying this glaring loophole in existing law. Perhaps Brenner was distracted at the time in hunting for suspected socialists working in socialist public school districts.
The Beacon-Journal’s 2014 reportage about an Ohio charter school chain affiliated with a Turkish cleric having some non-citizens on their boards and employing others through the use of temporary visas should have attracted some attention. Perhaps the same could be said about the 2015 House Education Committee hearing, when the issue of non-citizens working in Ohio charter schools was again raised.
But that was then.
Now, in light of accusations that a Turkish exile, linked to a vast charter school chain, might be involved with an attempt to bring down the government of that country, will we finally hear some voices of concern from the Ohio legislature? If not from Andrew Brenner, how about from Cliff Rosenberger, Speaker of the House, who participated in a junket to Turkey sponsored by the Niagara Foundation, a Gulen allied organization?
Yesterday, Fethullah Gulen denied any involvement in the coup attempt in his home country. However, serious questions remain.
Where concerns about ECOT, Horizon and Noble Academies intersect is the fact that private charter school management companies are not subject to the full scope of transparency and accountability measures as are public school districts. What we know about how these and other charter schools and their management companies spend their money as profits from public funds derived from state charter school aid payments is what we don’t know.
Come to think about it, was Donald Rumsfeld talking about charter schools when he famously said that “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
So what we know about ECOT is that the founder, who heads two management companies that run the online mega-school, likes to make generous donations to Republican members of the Ohio legislature. We don’t know much more than that.
But what we also don’t know is whether public funds derived from profits garnered by Concept Schools, the management company for the Horizon and Noble chain of Ohio charter schools linked to Fethullah Gulen, might somehow be a conduit to fuel the current unrest in Turkey and elsewhere. For many of those who are watching the news from Turkey, they are just now finding out about an elusive Turkish exile who lives in the Poconos and who somehow seems to have his hands in many, many things, including, incredibly, American public education. (Should I use “public” in quotes here?)
We won’t know much more because people like Andrew Brenner believe that everything about privately managed and publicly funded charters is good, while everything about public schools is socialism – and socialism is evil.
That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? But when Ohio citizens are learning that a so-called “public charter school” is refusing to supply records requested to support a state audit to justify its eligibility for public tax dollars, that doesn’t make sense, does it?
And then there’s the question of what if.
What if a courageous member of the Ohio legislature will come out of the slumber of summer recess and make a statement questioning why we are tolerating an influential political donor having his way with a state audit of his online school?
What if a courageous member of that same Ohio legislature will arise from the somnolence of summertime and raise the question as to why we are funding a chain of publicly supported but privately operated charter schools that may be an agent in supporting the unrest in Turkey, a chain that may not have American citizens in all board positions?
Are you as skeptical as I am on this ever happening?
Perhaps. But as far as the compromised (read ECOT, Niagara Foundation, etc.) Ohio legislature is concerned, perhaps Pete Seeger’s great lyric says it best:
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
A lot of sentences here end with question marks, and there seem to be no answers on the horizon.
Yes, in Ohio we’ve had more than one night of chaos and intrigue. As Charles Manson always said, no sense makes sense.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.