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Report: Harmony Charter Schools Favor Turkish Contractors

A teacher instructs a student at a Harmony Charter School in North Houston.
Photo by Wenjing Zhang, Texas Tribune
A teacher instructs a student at a Harmony Charter School in North Houston.

The largest charter school operator in Texas, Harmony Charter Schools, has come under the scrupulous microscope of the New York Times.  The paper published a front page, top-of-the-fold blowout on Harmony’s links to the Gulen movement, a Turkish religious group.

The Times notes that the Cosmos Foundation, which operates Harmony Charter schools in Texas, is already being investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor in Ohio and Illinois following union accusations that schools abused a visa program to bring in Turkish employees.

And, while that has stirred what might be considered xenophobic reactions from some of Harmony’s critics, the Times piece primarily focuses on how the publicly-funded organization issues contracts for building and other services.

[A]n examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture. 

Harmony’s Texas superintendent Soner Tarim told the newspaper that the organization follows all competitive bidding rules, and he denies playing favorites with Turkish companies.

Even so, records show that virtually all recent construction and renovation work has been done by Turkish-owned contractors. Several established local companies said they had lost out even after bidding several hundred thousand dollars lower. “It kind of boils my blood a little bit, all the money that was spent, when I know it could have been done for less,” said Deborah Jones, an owner of daj Construction, one of four lower bidders who failed to win a recent contract for a school renovation in the Austin area.

Harmony operates four schools in the Austin area and plans to open a fifth school in August. Its four existing Austin schools received high grades from the state for the 2010-11 school year, the most recent timeframe for which data is available. Three Austin campuses received the status of “exemplary”, the highest possible ranking; the fourth was “recognized”, the second highest ranking.

The Texas Tribune, our political reporting partner, visited a Harmony Charter School in North Houston last year and examined some of the complications of comparing Harmony’s academic outcomes with non-charter schools.   

The school districts in big cities where Harmony operates often serve an even greater percentage of economically distressed students. And Harmony schools naturally attract more-motivated parents seeking a more rigorous environment and willing to play a supporting role. Like many charters, Harmony purposely does not offer transportation, partly as a matter of cost concerns but mostly out of a desire to demand a family investment. 

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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