Monday, July 7, 2014
Gulen Horizon Science Academys (Concept Schools) under fire for hiring Turkish immigrants to displace American Teachers
A chain of 19 publicly funded Ohio charter schools, founded by Turkish immigrants, is taking the position that the United States lacks a qualified pool of math and science teachers and is importing perhaps hundreds of Turks to fill the void.
The schools are run almost exclusively by persons of Turkish heritage, some of whom are not U.S. citizens — a new twist in Ohio’s controversial charter-school movement.
In addition, the Horizon and Noble academies, run by Chicago-based Concept Schools, are related through membership, fundraisers and political giving to the nonprofit Niagara Foundation, which provides trips to Turkey for state, local and federal lawmakers.
Among those touring Turkey has been State Rep. Cliff Rosenberger, a Clarksville Republican on the powerful finance and appropriations committee and considered to be a leading candidate for House speaker next year. He was joined on the trip by at least four other state legislators and local government leaders from his area in southwest Ohio.
There have been other trips from Ohio, and in Illinois, there are allegations that state officials who took trips showed favoritism in disbursing public dollars to Concept schools.
Public records show that since late 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor has allowed 19 of these schools in Ohio to hire 325 educators almost exclusively from Turkey.
However, as early as 2002, state audits found 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 broken English. Help with legal and immigration fees also extended to their children and families, including the spouses of directors.
The auditor also cited suspect wire transfers, totaling $36,000, and checks made out to “cash” to repay personal loans issued by individuals in Istanbul, Turkey.
Three of the Ohio schools have been visited by the FBI as part of a multistate probe. The agency said it is part of a white-collar criminal investigation.
Federal agents have not disclosed details, only that the investigation originated in Cleveland, has spread to Indiana and Illinois, and may or may not be connected to previous investigations at related schools in Baton Rouge, La., and Philadelphia.
Last school year, these Ohio charter schools, called Horizon and Noble Academies, received nearly $50 million in public funding transferred from local school districts where students otherwise would have attended.
At $50 million, Concept is among the larger players in Ohio’s charter-school movement, totaling $914 million last year. For years, charter schools have come under fire for poor academic performance and questionable finances.
Concept, founded in suburban Chicago by Turkish men, manages the Ohio charter schools and 11 others in five Midwest states. Its status as a for-profit or nonprofit under IRS standards is not clear.
Murat Efe oversees Concept operations in northern Ohio. His boss, Sedat Duman, controls the company from Des Plaines, Ill.
Former CEOs of Concept schools control Breeze Inc., a real estate company that owns many of the school buildings. As landlords, they collect rent from the publicly funded charter schools. Breeze shares office space with Concept in a building northwest of Chicago.
A Beacon Journal interview scheduled for June 27 with Efe and Salim Ucan, vice president of the company, was canceled by Concept less than a half-hour before it was to occur.
The Beacon Journal also requested records June 12 seeking taxpayer-funded contracts, emails discussing recent FBI investigations and visa applications filed by the schools.
The records were requested of three Concept administrators and 18 school board members.
Only three, all board members, acknowledged that they received the request. One forwarded it to a principal. The other two passed it along to Efe, who has not responded to repeated attempts to reschedule an interview.
In addition, The News Outlet, a student journalism lab headquartered at Youngstown State University, conducted a survey this spring of 20 school board members at Horizon and Noble academies in Northeast Ohio. Few answers were received.
Better than average
Last school year, Ohio’s Turkish-run schools — which offer the Turkish language and promote themselves as specialized in math and science — enrolled more than 6,700 students.
In Cleveland alone, $12 million was transferred from the municipal school district to Concept schools. Academies also exist in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Euclid, Toledo and Youngstown.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, the academies’ performance on state tests varies widely from school to school and year to year. In 2013, 12 received D’s, four C’s and three B’s.
Those scores are better than the average Ohio charter school and often higher than most city school districts where they are located, although some have lower graduation rates.
In 2012, Secretary of State John Husted visited Horizon Academies in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, then another in Dayton a year later. In the weeks before and after each visit, people who identified themselves as with Horizon, Concept, Noble or Turkish interests donated $5,400 into Husted’s campaign fund.
A spokesman for Husted said the “donations were really received through fundraising events that were publicized and open to the public” and that the secretary “had no conversations” with donors.
Husted, who has been a leading advocate of charter schools for a decade, is pictured on many Concept school websites, smiling with officials and children.
State Rep. Cliff Rosenberger, who could be the next Ohio House speaker, also received $1,850 in 2012.
Three months earlier, Rosenberger joined two other House Republicans and two local officials for a trip to Turkey. The trip, focused on economic development, was paid for by the Niagara Foundation, which also has sponsored dinner at the state capital.
Rosenberger’s office did not answer Beacon Journal requests for information.
Between the fall of 2012 and 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, the 19 Ohio charter schools sought to import 97 Turkish teachers.
In contrast, Ohio’s public school districts (which enroll roughly 270 times more students) looked overseas only 11 times. More than half of the requests, including one filed by Akron Public Schools, sought Mandarin or Chinese teachers — languages that economists say are in high demand.
Concept Schools, however, pursued visas for 13 Turkish language teachers that year.
To put the hiring practice in perspective, records show that Horizon and Noble academies have attempted to import as many teachers in four years as it would take to staff the state’s largest public high school, with more than 100 teachers to spare.
Former employees allege that Turkish employees generally are paid more than U.S.-born teachers, then asked to contribute as much as 40 percent of their pay to an Islam-based religious movement known as Hizmet that supports interfaith dialog.
The movement is led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
A Beacon Journal review of visa applications indicates that most teachers recruited from Turkey would receive a starting salary of more than $40,000. That’s higher than the salaries of many existing employees whose names do not reflect Middle Eastern heritage, according to pay data kept by the state treasurer’s office.
And, “They’re not qualified,” said Mary Addi, a former teacher at a Horizon middle school in Cleveland.
One state audit supported her contention by finding as many as 20 percent of teachers at one school were not licensed, and nearly half of all treasurers at 19 schools lacked proper credentials.
“American taxpayers are just so ambivalent about all this. Do they know they are paying for all this?” said Addi, whose husband, Mustafa Emanet, has worked for the schools.
“I worked for them. I was one of them,” he said, saying he and his wife were fired then rehired multiple times. Emanet said he was asked to return 40 percent of his salary, which started at $44,000 in 2006.
“They know the system here and they use the system here,” Emanet said.
State audits also show reimbursement to high-level employees for their pursuit of MBA degrees, along with credit card purchases for alcohol, shampoo, Red Bull and other non-school-related goods.
Now, the Ohio Department of Education is probing allegations that grades and attendance records have been tampered. The matter, first investigated in 2012, has been reopened after the department was publicly criticized for taking it easy on the school’s independent sponsor, which in Ohio handles academic and fiscal oversight.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.