State Rep Seeks Investigation of Charter School

Two months after lawyers for the Republic of Turkey filed a complaint against Harmony Public Schools, a high-ranking state representative has asked the Texas Attorney General to investigate allegations against the state’s largest charter school network.

A charter school rally at the Texas Capitol in 2013.

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 14 with comment from Robert Amsterdam.

Two months after lawyers for the Republic of Turkey filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency against Harmony Public Schools, a high-ranking state representative has asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office to investigate the allegations lobbed against the state’s largest charter school network.

"If the facts are correct, Texas taxpayers are in fact in danger and our education system, not to mention the safety of our citizens, seems to be in peril," wrote Rep. Dan Flynn, a Canton Republican who chairs the House Pensions Committee, in a letter released Wednesday urging Ken Paxton’s office to investigate the charges or turn them over to the Texas Rangers.

A Paxton spokeswoman said she could not confirm or deny if the office had launched a probe. 

In May, London-based Amsterdam & Partners filed a complaint with the state education agency alleging Harmony routinely discriminates against special needs and bilingual students, pays Turkish-born teachers — including males — more than their American counterparts, misuses the H-1B Visa program, violates competitive bidding laws and misuses state and federal funds.

Harmony officials have said the allegations — ones the Houston-based charter network has faced before — are unsubstantiated and that the complaint is a politically motivated attack.

A Harmony spokesman declined to comment Wednesday. An education agency spokeswoman said the complaint and a supplementary one filed earlier this month are still under review.

The Republic of Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is severing ties with old allies and waging a well-documented war against critics, hired Amsterdam last fall “to conduct a global investigation into the activities of the organization led by moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen,” according to the law firm's website. Gülen, a former Erdogan ally, is a reclusive Turkish expatriate living in Pennsylvania whom news reports have linked to Harmony and other U.S. charter schools.

Harmony officials have vehemently denied any connection to Gülen.

Flynn described Amsterdam as a “legitimate group” in an interview Wednesday, noting that he has heard complaints against Harmony for years and also traveled to Turkey on a legislative trip. He described himself as a great supporter of charter schools but that noted some in his district have had issues and been forced to close.

“I’m a state representative that believes that when something comes to your attention and you don’t check it out then you become part of the problem, if there is a problem,” he said. “If those allegations — if they show to be what they are professed to be — then we need to make some changes. We need to be sure we address those issues because the state of Texas puts a lot of money in charter schools, and the issues that have been brought to my attention are not issues I’ve heard for the first time.”

Harmony, which focuses on science and math education, is the second-largest charter network in the United States and the largest in Texas. It operates 46 schools here where nearly 31,000 students are enrolled.

Founded by a group of Turkish professors and businessmen, the charter network came under fire about five years ago when the New York Times and 60 Minutes ran pieces exploring possible connections between the rapidly growing charter school network and Gülen, who reportedly encourages his followers to promote science and math education. The reports detailed the network’s overwhelming use of Turkish teachers and Turkish-owned contractors and raised questions about fair hiring and bidding practices.

Harmony officials point out that the charter network has only grown in popularity since then, with an annual waiting list of about 30,000.

Some conservative activist groups in Texas, including the Eagle Forum, have also targeted Harmony saying its schools use taxpayer dollars to promote Islam and anti-American ideology. 

"We want to make sure our taxpayers are getting their money's worth and that kids are being taught what we want them to be taught," Flynn said Wednesday. 

Robert Amsterdam, founder of the Amsterdam firm, applauded Flynn's request.

“It’s welcome news that Harmony Public Schools are finally getting the scrutiny they deserve," he said in a statement. "We support Rep. Flynn’s call for an investigation and encourage the Texas Education Agency to act swiftly. There is too much at stake to continue to allow Gülenists to have unchecked influence in Texas and across the U.S.” 

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