Roll Tide Roll

Tomorrow, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up Governor Bill Lee’s “super-charter authorizer” bill that would effectively usurp the authority of local school boards by creating a state board that has the power to authorize charter schools anywhere in Tennessee.

While I’ve warned before of the dangers of such an authorizer by pointing to Arizona, perhaps our neighbors in Alabama offer an even better example of what can go wrong with such an authorizer.

Here’s more from the Alabama Political Reporter:

Woodland Prep is a charter school horror story — and it hasn’t even been built yet.

Located in rural Washington County, Woodland Prep, which will open as a K-7 school this fall and add a grade level each year, is everything state leaders assured us could never happen under Alabama’s charter school laws.

Its land is owned by a shady Utah holding company. Its building is owned by a for-profit Arizona company. It will be managed by a for-profit Texas company that doesn’t employ a single Alabamian. It will pay the head of that management company around $300,000 per year — up front. Its application was rejected by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which Alabama pays a hefty sum to review and approve charter applications. Woodland’s management plan failed to meet basic standards for approval in any of the three plan areas reviewed by NACSA.

In spite of all of those concerns, Woodland Prep was approved by the Alabama Charter School Commission — a board similar to the one envisioned by Lee and his legislative supporters for authorizing charters in Tennessee.

Who is behind this mysterious charter?

Soner Tarim. Tarim is the CEO of Unity School Services and was the founder of Harmony Schools, a mostly-successful charter school group in Texas. Tarim and Harmony also have their very serious problems, not least of which is their ties to a Muslim cleric and controversial preacher from Turkey, Fetullah Gulen, and his Gulen Movement.

Numerous reports from the New York Times to Reuters and other local news outlets linked Harmony and Tarim to Gulen, and some labeled Harmony a financial front for Gulen’s movement. While Gulen espouses a more moderate brand of Islam, his movement has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has accused Gulen and his followers of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. Others dispute those claims, and believe the terrorist label is unfairly applied to Gulen, who has shown no proclivity for violence.

Regardless, other legal questions have been raised about Harmony and Tarim’s use of the schools to exploit a visa program and to skirt hiring laws in order to give contract jobs to Turkish workers and teachers.

Follow the Money

A copy of the USS contract with the Woodland Prep board shows that Tarim will make 15 percent of all federal, state and local funds received by Woodland. Which means that for every student allotment — and Woodland estimates in its application that the per-pupil allotment will be more than $8,200 — Tarim will make 15 percent off the top. If Woodland’s projected enrollment of 260 students is accurate, Tarim will make more than $300,000.

Can this happen in Tennessee?

Yes. Interestingly, the legislation creating the state charter authorizer also contains a provision specifically related to H1B visas — the same program used by Tarim at schools in Texas and contemplated in Alabama. Here’s that provision:

(1) An authorizer may deny a public charter school application if the
proposed public charter school plans to staff positions for teachers,
administrators, ancillary support personnel, or other employees by utilizing, or
otherwise relying on, nonimmigrant foreign worker H1B or J1 visa programs in
excess of three and one half percent (3.5%) of the total number of positions at
any single public charter school location for any school year.
(2) Notwithstanding subdivision (d)(1), an authorizer shall not deny a
public charter school application solely because the proposed public charter
school plans to exceed the limitation in subdivision (d)(1) by employing foreign
language instructors who, prior to employment, meet and, during the period for
which the instructors’ H1B or J1 visas have been granted, will meet all
Tennessee educator licensure requirements. If an authorizer denies a public
charter school application under this subsection (d), then the sponsor may
appeal the authorizer’s decision to deny the application as provided in subsection
(b).

Why would Tennessee’s proposed law contemplate this specific issue? The case out of Alabama should be alarming. We’re told again and again that Tennessee’s authorizer will be different, that our law builds in accountability. The Alabama law did the same thing and look what happened. Moreover, the law as proposed in Tennessee — with its H1B provisions — would make Soner Tarim smile.

Tennessee lawmakers would do well to look to Alabama for what could go wrong.

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Bill Lee’s Charter Quest

Governor Bill Lee is pushing aggressively to privatize Tennessee schools — both by creating a new, unaccountable voucher scheme and by expanding the reach of charter schools in our state.

This story out of California should give policymakers pause as they explore the possibility of more charter schools across the state, even in districts where the local school board is not consulted.

Here’s a quick summary:

“The warning signs appeared soon after Denise Kawamoto accepted a job at Today’s Fresh Start Charter School in South Los Angeles. Though she was fresh out of college, she was pretty sure it wasn’t normal for the school to churn so quickly through teachers or to mount surveillance cameras in each classroom. Old computers were lying around, but the campus had no internet access. Pay was low and supplies scarce — she wasn’t given books for her students. She struggled to reconcile the school’s conditions with what little she knew about its wealthy founders, Clark and Jeanette Parker of Beverly Hills. The Parkers have cast themselves as selfless philanthropists, telling the California Board of Education that they have ‘devoted all of our lives to the education of other people’s children, committed many millions of our own dollars directly to that particular purpose, with no gain directly to us.’ But the couple have, in fact, made millions from their charter schools. Financial records show the Parkers’ schools have paid more than $800,000 annually to rent buildings the couple own. The charters have contracted out services to the Parkers’ nonprofits and companies and paid Clark Parker generous consulting fees, all with taxpayer money, a Times investigation found. How the Parkers have stayed in business, surviving years of allegations of financial and academic wrongdoing, illustrates glaring flaws in the way California oversees its growing number of charter schools. Many of the people responsible for regulating the couple’s schools, including school board members and state elected officials, had accepted thousands of dollars from the Parkers in campaign contributions.”

This is exactly the type of abuse of the system that could be on the way to the Volunteer State if Lee’s proposals become law. Key votes are coming in the next few weeks. Stay tuned …

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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