FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – The Texas Legislature ordered an investigation on Tuesday of the largest charter school network in the state after news organizations reported potential ties to a Muslim organization and misuse of public funds.
These concerns about Houston based-Harmony Public Schools helped lead to the initial defeat of Senate Bill 1, which had to pass before the budget could be balanced, because of provisions that provided guarantees for charter school bonds.
“We were uncomfortable voting for that bill unless we were sure that those funds were being properly spent,” said Rep. Phil King (R – Weatherford). The bill allowed charter schools to achieve AAA bond ratings, which decreases the cost of insurance rates and issuance costs.
King said a caucus after the bill’s defeat brought out these concerns, and he suggested an investigation into the charter school network as a stipulation of passing the funding. This guarantee led to the passage of the bill on the second vote.
The concerns stemmed from aNew York Times article published earlier this month that drew a connection between Harmony and Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher of moderate Islam who has built up a worldwide network of followers.
The article also insinuated the school gave preference to Turkish-run companies when choosing building contractors and food suppliers when cheaper options were available, as well as hired international teachers, specifically from Turkey, who might not have been qualified.
“These are serious allegations,” King said. “As public officials, it is our duty to look into them.”
Harmony chief executive Soner Tarim issued a statement Wednesday morning saying he “welcomed” the investigation as a change to prove the allegations are false.
“Like all public schools in Texas, whether traditional or charter, we are required to operate in full compliance with the laws, regulations and guidance set by the state of Texas, and we do so,” he said.
Harmony runs 36 charter schools in Texas, with at least one in every major metropolitan area – including one in Fort Worth, one in Garland and two in Dallas.
Jennifer Sarver of Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm representing Harmony, said the New York Times article that prompted this investigation was inaccurate and “full of bias.”
In a letter to the article’s author, New York Times reporter Stephanie Saul, Sarver accused Saul of “giving significant credence to unfounded innuendo and allegations made by a few voices whose rhetoric, frankly, is tinged with religious bigotry and discrimination.”
Saver said she was convinced “if these were Catholic schools this wouldn’t be a story.”
When CBSDFW.com contacted Saul, she rejected charge of bias and said the story was “100 percent accurate.”
“I think that the report stands on its own,” Saul said. “The story lays out a number of details about their construction arrangements and if the reader takes away from it that they feel it’s improper, then that’s how the reader interprets the story.”
Sarver said while Turkish immigrants to the United States founded the school, their only motivation was providing American students with a better education in math and science.
Sarver denied any connections with the Gulen organization, and said the only interest in hiring contractors to build schools was the speed at which it could get done.
“Our interest lies in serving the students and getting the schools built in time. Sometimes the lowest bid is not always the fastest,” Sarver said.
Sarver said the qualifications of the teachers “were clear,” as two Harmony schools were recently included in Newsweek’s top 10 list of “Miracle Schools” that deliver outstanding educational services despite serving low-income students and having limited funding.
These two schools, Harmony Science Academy – North Austin and Harmony Science Academy – Dallas, were also named in the magazine’s top 500 schools in the United States.
Josie Duckett, vice president for public and government affairs of the Texas Charter School Association, said she believes the allegations in the article are false, and said she felt “very comfortable” with the construction agreements and hiring practices of Harmony.
“Hopefully the investigation will only help clear up any misunderstanding that is happening with in the Texas Legislature,” she said.
Duckett, whose organization will comply with any requests for information during the investigation, said she is confident the school is not involved with the Gulen organization and its “name will be cleared” at the conclusion of the investigation.
While Duckett echoed Sarver’s feelings that the article and the investigation were unfair, King said the Legislature’s decision did not reflect feelings of bias within the House or Senate.
“This investigation is absolutely not any type of witch hunt,” he said, “it’s just an effort to make sure public dollars are being used appropriately.”
King did not know when the investigation would begin, but said he hoped the allegations against Harmony were false.
“Hopefully we’ll get in there and find that everything is OK, but when you have these types of allegations you’ve got to go in there and check it out,” King said.