We Are Paying for Charter School Invasion

Peyton Wolcott,
Twenty years ago, about the same time our Turkish friends suddenly came to the U.S. en masse for Public Schoolse school and then decided that even though Turkish schools were only in the 30s to 70s in world rankings, and ours in the top 20, they would help us anyway — the federal government simultaneously began flooding states with easy charter school money and undersupervised funds for underserved students. The subsequent decision of our new Turkish friends to open charter schools for underserved students might seem to the casual observer to be a genius move. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said to aim for what is weakest.

Texas boasts the largest Turkish-run charter operation in the U.S.: 57 schools and 35,000 students, 100 percent college acceptance rate, and academics they tell us are excellent. Harmony Public Schools’ approaching 20th anniversary makes this a great time to take a closer look at their promises made — and promises kept.

What Harmony said in 2000

Harmony’s “CEO [and principal] will possess … Texas supervisor certification,” they said. But Soner Tarim, Harmony’s first principal then later its first superintendent then CEO, has never held any State Board for Educator Certification credentials; in fact, when Tarim was questioned by elected State Board of Education member Georgina Perez on June 14, 2019, she had to correct him when he referred to SBEC certification as “ABC.”

Although our Turkish friends told the Texas Education Agency in 2000 they were going to include parents and citizens, every board since for Harmony and its three successive charter management organizations (Cosmos Foundation, Charter School Solutions and Harmony Education Foundation) — has shared one common trait: the voting majority is Turkish men.

Masters of self-promotion?

Harmony told us from the beginning they had an inside track on teaching and word of mouth would bring students in. Another peg in their PR package was their near-mythic stack of 38,000-plus applications. If true, why did Harmony just spend $2 million taxpayer dollars for newspaper ads and flyers and promotional items? And why did taxpayers spend $926,781.75 for Harmony to have the same helpful trainings at Texas’ regional Education Service Centers as our neighborhood schools? Plus millions more that taxpayers spent on student test prep to boost those unverified scores?

Is Harmony really excellent?

Pressed for proof that anyone at TEA had ever in-person monitored Harmony’s accountability tests, the source for their excellence claims, TEA supplied no names.

Re Harmony’s 100 percent college acceptance rate: It’s only at North American University, which automatically accepts Harmony graduates. NAU’s seven Turkish male trustees include former Cosmos Trading president Abdullah Marulcu, former Harmony chief of academics Kadir Almus and NAU’s president Serif Ali Tekalan who hails from Istanbul’s short-lived (est. 1996) private Fatih Üniversitesi, which was shut down in 2016 by the Turkish government.

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In 2000, Harmony told TEA their goal was to teach three languages: Spanish, French, and German. So why did HPS spend $338,778.05 at Clifton, N.J.’s Antstores on Turkish textbooks last year — but nary a penny for German textbooks? Oops.

There are checks a-plenty for bouncy house rentals and custom shirts plus myriad catering and meals including a $744.30 tab at Empire Turkish Grill whose $11.95 lunch specials do not include zahtar dip, an extra $2.50.

Charter boards appointed, not elected

In my local schools when there were serious ethics issues, a small group of us organized and found five candidates to fill each of our newly vacant trustee spots. We told the candidates we would help elect them if they would agree to sign a public pledge they would not do business with the school district during their tenure and all agreed. Voters loved the idea of voluntary accountability and all five won their spots in May 2004.

But because charter schools’ boards are appointed, not elected, with Harmony and the other charter operators we have no such ballot-box recourse. In fact, Texas taxpayers are dependent on — is there a nice way to put this — TEA’s charter division’s nine appointed bureaucrats (of approximately 1,000 TEA employees). For the record: All TEA employees I’ve met have been nice. But that does not mean they will return my phone calls and emails — or yours.

Did anyone at TEA know about Harmony’s $2,090 bouncy house rentals? Pressed recently, TEA was unable to confirm eyeballing any actual Harmony checks. Is that any way to run a bank?

From short stick to CEO of a national empire?

So who is Soner Tarim? In his own words earlier this year to Texas’ SBOE: “When I started in, uh, 2000, my first charter, I was teaching at university, and, uh, you know, when I established Harmony Public Schools and, uh, five of us, we had five board members, and I pulled a short stick and became the principal, I had no principal experience, no principal certification in my life.”

Years ago during a lecture, architect Frank Gehry said if you think a building is well designed, imagine 100 like it. Are students amoebas on a petri dish to be prodded and pulled with every new fashion in education? Is the goal to come up with the perfect formula and make 100 — or millions?

Soner left Harmony in 2017, sights apparently set on “building a new CMO intended to be national in scope, Royal School Services,” according to one of his business partners, Nevada Strong’s Annette Dawson Owens. (Note to Annette: Soner’s new charter school business is Royal Public Schools and his new CMO is Unity School Services.)

At the beginning, Turkish charter operators across America touted their Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis. But Soner told Texans earlier this year he had found STEM lacking and started Royal so he could add Social and Emotional Learning. Other buzzwords like “incubate” and “replicate” also pepper the former Harmony CEO’s talks. Were these his own observations — or edu-fashions du jour picked up at Aspen Institute or Broad Foundation?

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Regardless, how could SEL have been the cause for Soner’s leaving Harmony — when Harmony’s website features both SEL and STEM? In a revelatory aside, Soner told the SBOE he was starting Unity SS “to pay the bills.” According to published reports, the one charter Soner has been able to open in Alabama was paying him $30,000 per month — for 360 students.

Hard to keep up. Where is Soner today? Nevada? Alabama? Washington, D.C.? Houston? And wearing which hat: CEO, business partner, charter enthusiast — or non-credentialed academic leading 35,000 impressionable young students?

Hearts pure as the driven snow

Washington, D.C. has been eager for the past two decades to give away our tax dollars to charters. This past spring the Network for Public Education reported “the federal government…wastes hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on grants awarded to charter schools that never open or quickly close, [and the] grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented.” Didn’t Reagan tell us, “Trust — but verify”?

Walk softly and carry a big — question mark

According to Soner’s application to TEA, Royal was named in honor of George III, the same despotic tyrant our forefathers cited 27 injuries and usurpations by in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Royal’s application says George III created the “first documented charter school in history… in 1733” — except George III wasn’t born until 1738. Nobody at TEA noticed?

If he separated from Harmony in 2017, why in 2018 did Texas taxpayers give Soner $149,877.05 for his Harmony office expenses including phone, internet and “drinking water services”? Tap water’s okay for students but not for a CEO?

Soner’s separation from Harmony meant walking away from indebtedness in the millions including “Education Facility Lease Revenue Bonds,” rated BBB out of La Paz, Arizona — leaving Texas taxpayers to forever make rent payments to CMOs. Indeed, there are $9 million in rent payments on Harmony’s 2018-2019 check register. Who approved this?

Are BBB bonds a good investment? When asked, one investment advisor joked, “No, no, no!”

My magic wand

If I had one and could wave it: TEA, D.C. and state education departments across America would act less like cheerleaders and more like hall monitors — and the bankers they actually are. And charter school operators would be held to the same standards as other taxpayer-funded public schools: No CMOs, no empires. One top job, uh, at a time at, uh, one limited-size charter. Please pass the zahtar.