The PJ Tatler

Shocking Allegations About Ohio Charter Schools Tied to Controversial Turkish Leader

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On the heels of an FBI raid of several Horizon-Concept charter schools in Ohio, several former teachers and employees have come forward to make shocking allegations of inflated test scores and falsified attendance records, racist and sexist behavior by Turkish teachers and administrators, and sexual harassment and abuse that went unreported by administrators. At a State Board of Education meeting last week, former employees described not only low educational standards, but also an atmosphere of intimidation — American teachers feared Turkish administrators who fired teachers at the first sign of disloyalty while Turkish teachers were promoted, often despite poor job performance. The charter schools, associated with the Turkish Gülen movement and its controversial leader, Fethullah Gülen, promote Turkish language and culture and many of the schools are known for their academic excellence.

Richard Storrick, who taught at Horizon Science Dayton High School for two and a half years, told members of the state school board about a “sex game” that went on in the middle school classroom of a Turkish teacher, saying that standards differ “whether you are from Turkish descent or of American descent.” Storrick said that no action was taken when the director of the school was informed about the game and in fact, the teacher was re-hired the next year and given additional responsibilities.

Storrick also said that Turkish students were treated differently than American students. “If you were a Turkish student, you knew you could get away with misbehavior, including fighting, and be back the next day. Turkish students were permitted to skip class or school with no repercussions,” Storrick said. Turkish teachers called African American students “dogs” and “monkeys.” Another teacher at the same school, Timothy Neary added, “Racism was an issue. Black kids would be disciplined much more severely than Turkish students. If there was a fight in school, the Turkish students would be back the next day. Many of the black students would get severe consequences.” He also said that sexism was a problem. “It was almost gross how they’d talk to women. They’d tell them to not talk or cut them off in midpoint,” Neary said, adding that the majority of teachers fired were women.

Kelly Kochensparger, who served as the Dayton charter school’s public communications director in addition to her teaching duties, said that middle school students were caught on tape engaging in oral sex. School administrators notified neither the parents nor the authorities, preferring to focus on maintaining the school’s positive image instead, she said.

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Matt Blair, a former teacher at the Horizon Academy in Dayton, alleged that there was cheating on state achievement tests. “School officials were filling in bubbles on standardized tests. They claimed that it was because students didn’t fill in circles dark enough.” Richard Neary, who taught at the same school said, “Even though standardized tests are supposed to be taken and locked in a secure place, that did not always occur, if ever.” Neary added, “All the tests would go into one room, with one Turkish administrator behind a locked door and nobody would ever see the tests again.” Board member Mary Rose Oakar noted that most of the Concept schools had very high test scores. “If would be very disturbing if there was cheating going on to get these ratings,” she said.

Neary also said he suspected the school was falsifying attendance records. “School administrators clearly lied about attendance. I can honestly tell you never once did I have a full classroom with my roster with every single student, yet they reported to you a 97% attendance rate,” he said. “I guess that’s an easy one to fudge.”

State Senator Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), who was in attendance at the state school board meeting, asked what percentage of the teachers were Turkish, noting that she had never seen any during her visits to the schools. One of the teachers explained, “They come over on visas that say they need to teach math and science. Yet they’re teaching gym, they’re treasurers, they’re administrators, they’re guidance counselors, they’re IT. Since when did we have a lack of gym teachers in the state of Ohio?” he asked. One teacher explained, “Sometimes they hide behind — I’m being honest — in closets that are made into offices. So no, you wouldn’t have seen them. And many times when people — dignitaries — come in and things like that , they would ask one of [the American teachers] to be the hand shakers and introduce people and talk.”

The Akron Beacon Journal recently reported that, “Ohio charter schools mangaed [sic] by Concept Schools, an Illinois company founded by Turkish men, have attempted to import 381 teachers, arguing that Ohio’s workforce lacks highly qualified educators. Two-thirds of these applications have been approved. Most requests, 216, are for foreign science and math teachers. Another 37 would be filled by Turkish language teachers.” Public records show the teachers are coming almost exclusively from Turkey. During that same time period, Ohio’s entire traditional public school system only sought 11 visas from overseas, most of them seeking Mandarin or Chinese teachers. State audits dating back to 2002 show thousands of public dollars “illegally expended” to finance the U.S. citizenship process for Turkish employees — some fresh out of college with no classroom experience and limited English skills. 

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Last month the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission joined forces with FBI agents in Cleveland to search 19 locations owned by Concept Schools, saying they are investigating the charter schools for “white collar crimes.”

The investigations are clouded by the fact that charter schools are a hot-button issue in Ohio and the debate will be highly politicized in an election year — teachers unions and many newspapers in Ohio, including the Beacon Journal, have been constant critics of charter schools, complaining that the schools are not properly regulated. They also complain that Horizon-Concept school employees and groups associated with the schools have contributed to the campaigns of several prominent Republicans in the state, actively courting their favor — even sponsoring trips to Turkey to promote their agenda to Republican lawmakers. One of the teachers who testified at the State Board of Education meeting last week appeared with the Democrat running for state auditor on Monday to criticize the Republican state auditor for not acting on earlier allegations of misconduct. Former Horizon teacher Matt Blair, who also testified last week, is a member of the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. Progressive groups and teachers unions are using the investigations to call for more oversight of charter schools across the state.

Nevertheless, the current state auditor, Republican Dave Yost, has relentlessly investigated allegations of misconduct in both traditional public schools and in charter schools since he was elected in 2010. His office uncovered a major cheating scandal in the Columbus Public Schools last year. He announced last week that he would be launching a probe into the Horizon-Concept schools. “We’re concerned about the integrity of the testing, particularly at the Dayton school but also at all 19 schools in Ohio,” Yost said of claims by former teachers that administrators were seen filling in answers on standardized tests.

Fethullah Gülen, the “religious scholar” with whom the schools are loosely tied, has a cult-like following in Turkey, and increasingly, in the United States, where he lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. He fled Turkey in 1998 after he was charged with trying to subvert the secular government. This week Turkish prime minister  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the Gülen movement “An organization that threatens our national security” and added it to the country’s top-secret national security document, known as the “Red Book.

The Gülen movement is involved not only with education (charter schools, private schools, and universities), but it also has substantial investments in media, finance, and for-profit health clinics. Gülenists say they promote interfaith dialogue and a modern form of Islam. Critics say the movement has the characteristics of a cult and have questioned its secrecy and influence in Turkish politics.

Former employees allege that Turkish employees at the Gülen schools are paid more than U.S.-born teachers, then asked to contribute as much as 40 percent of their pay to Hizmet — the unofficial name for the Gülen movement.  A Beacon Journal review of visa applications indicates that teachers with names that “do not reflect Middle Eastern heritage” were paid less than other teachers.

There are an estimated 120 charter school nationwide tied to the Gulen Movement — and thousands more around the world.