A complaint against the largest charter school network in Texas, Harmony Public Schools, accuses the chain of abusing a visa program to import a large number of Turkish teachers and violating state and federal laws by paying them more than American teachers.
The complaint was filed by attorney Robert Amsterdam, who was hired by the Turkish government to investigate 150 publicly funded U.S. charter schools started by followers of a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, is a political foe of Turkish President Recept Erdogan, who launched a crackdown on the moderate Islamic movement in Turkey led by Gulen. Last fall, the Turkish government hired a law firm, Amsterdam & Partners, to investigate Gulen.
Michael Rubinkam of ABC News reports that Harmony, which operates 46 charter schools across Texas, denounced the complaint as politically motivated and without merit. "The allegations filed today with the Texas Education Agency by an agent of the President of Turkey are nothing more than a politically-motivated rehash of old claims and complaints that have been heard and investigated previously and found to be without merit," Soner Tarim, a founding member and CEO of Harmony, said in a statement.
Amsterdam & Partners, the law firm hired by the Republic of Turkey, is asking the Texas Education Agency to investigate Harmony, which was founded in 2000 by Turkish graduate students. Harmony educates 31,000 students at 46 campuses across the state. The complaint, as reported by Holly Haker of the Dallas News, accused Harmony of hiring under-qualified Turkish teachers and steers business to companies in construction and catering run by Turkish nationals who are staunch critics of the current political climate in Turkey.
"We're going to continue to serve our students and parents, and nothing will distract us from that," Tarim said.
The Texas state Education Department has received the complaint and its agents are reviewing it. Harmony believes it is being targeted by Erdogan, who the BBC recently described as "formidable and ruthless" in stifling dissent domestically and overseas. Last year, an overwhelming majority of Turkish voters living in the United States opposed Erdogan's regime.
Harmony schools enroll a mix of Hispanic, black, Asian, and white students, and several of Harmony's high schools have received top national rankings. Harmony officials say that for every child enrolled in a Harmony school, there is another child on a waiting list.
The network has exhibited a preference for working with Turkish companies. In 2011, reports reviled that Harmony had rewarded most of its construction and renovation contracts to Turkish-owned companies even when other firms had offered to do these jobs for less money. The school is also known for hiring hundreds of Turkish educators with special work visas which are to be used only when companies cannot find skilled Americans for the jobs.
For its part, Harmony officials said they followed state bidding laws. Moreover, the federal government vetted an approved of all foreign visas issued. 7% of Harmony teachers currently have those visas, and the rate decreases each year.
Harmony says that it will do all it can to maintain its strong services and fight the charges brought against it by the Turkish government.