An international law firm working for the Republic of Turkey has filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency against Houston-based Harmony Public Schools, accusing the state’s largest charter network of illegal hiring, employment and bidding practices and of funneling money to an entity the Turkish president has accused of trying to overthrow the government.
Harmony immediately dismissed the 32-page complaint as “nothing more than a politically motivated re-hash of old claims and complaints that have been heard and investigated previously and found to be without merit.”
The grievance, filed Tuesday by Amsterdam & Partners, repeats many allegations the charter network faced several years ago that sparked some state and federal investigations, but never led to any sanctions. Student enrollment at the science- and math-focused charter has only grown since then, school officials note, with 46 campuses across the state serving 31,000 students and a waiting list about as large.
The Texas Tribune first reported the firm’s plans to file the complaint, which requests “a comprehensive investigation and sanctions as appropriate."
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It accuses Harmony of discriminatory hiring and employment practices by favoring Turkish teachers, paying Turkish teachers more than American teachers and paying male teachers more than female teachers. It also claims the school favors Turkish-owned vendors and that it “and many of its directors, employees and related vendors are connected” — and funnel profits — “to the Gülen Organization, a network of schools and affiliated businesses headed by Fethullah Gülen.”
Gülen, a reclusive Turkish cleric who has reportedly lived in Pennsylvania since 1999, is a former ally-turned-political enemy of democratically elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is waging a well-documented war against his critics. He has sued Gülen and attempted to jail Gülen's brother, issuing arrest warrants in March.
"The U.S. has shown no sign of wanting to extradite him," according to an International Business Times report.
Gülen, a moderate Muslim, encourages followers to open schools that teach science and math rather than churches, according to various media reports from earlier in the decade that have drawn connections between Gülen and a vast network of charter schools, including Harmony.
But Harmony, which was founded by a group of Turkish professors and businessmen, has vehemently denied any connection to Gülen. It issued a statement Tuesday refuting “affiliation of any kind with any religious or social organizations or movements.”
The school also said that all procurement is done according to state law, and that only 7 percent of its teachers have work visas — most of them from Turkey. That's down from about 20 percent about five years ago. A Harmony spokesman said the numbers used to be higher because the school is focused on science and math and couldn’t find qualified teachers in the United States. It has since built up its teacher recruiting program.
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Robert Amsterdam, founding partner of the firm that filed the complaint against Harmony, said in a statement that “the TEA has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that public education dollars are used solely for their intended purpose,” noting that Harmony receives about $250 million per year in state and federal funds.
“Our own limited investigation reveals that Harmony uses taxpayer funds to finance an illegal H1-B visa scheme that places underqualified Turkish teachers into key positions in its schools, while simultaneously underpaying its more qualified non-Turkish teachers,” he said. "We have also learned that Harmony misappropriates public funds by routinely engaging in improper self-dealing transactions with affiliated vendors, which has the further effect of preventing local businesses from competing for contracts at Harmony schools.”
The Turkish government is paying the firm, which has offices in Washington D.C., and London, $50,000 per month to conduct “a global investigation into the alleged illegal activities of the Gülen organization,” filings show. Amsterdam has hired longtime Austin lobbyist and political consultant Jim Arnold, who has not responded to requests for comment.
Education agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the agency had received the complaint and “will review it and determine next steps.”
“Harmony Public Schools stands ready to participate fully in any action the Texas Education Agency decides to take, and we are confident that our actions and activities will be found to be consistent with our mission: To provide a high-quality STEM-focused education to Texas school children, particularly in minority and traditionally underserved communities,” the school said in a statement.
Disclosure: Harmony Public Schools and Jim Arnold have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here.