Common sense. Something we hear about all the time, but sometimes appears to be beyond the reach of some folks to actually put in practice.
One definition says: Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.
Then you look at the entirety of the whole sordid affair of the charter school commission voting to allow a charter school in Washington County and you can only conclude that common sense was nowhere to be found last May 14 when this body voted 7-2 to approve the application.
Even worse, they thumbed their noses at the evaluation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a group that reviewed nine Alabama applications in 2016 and 2017 and were paid $113,000 by Alabama taxpayers to do so, that unequivocally told them not to do so.
“Sound and prudent judgment”? Are you joking?
“Based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” Hardly.
Instead this body chose to simply be a shill for a small group of disgruntled folks, Damn the facts. Damn the outpouring of opposition from this small, rural county. Damn the evaluation from a national organization.
There are 722,000 students in Alabama public schools. Schools that educate 90 percent of all the school age children in this state. It is the moral responsibility of EVERY ONE serving on a local school board, the state school board, a state wide commission or whatever we may label someone or something dealing with public education, to do everything within their power to help each and every one of these students.
That does not mean parking common sense at the door and giving approval to a charter school that will be an impediment to the ability of the Washington County school system to serve their 2,650 students.
How so? By being a financial drain on a small system, that, like most rural systems, is challenged each year to come up with enough money to do what it must do. What it is mandated to do in many cases.
Suddenly you have school buses running the same routes with fewer children. And fewer dollars to keep buses operating. Routes that are already underfunded by state dollars. You have electric bills for school building with fewer students. And fewer dollars to pay for lights and air-conditioning. Do you call Alabama Power and ask them to drop your rate per kilowatt hour?
What about nurses, technology coordinators, electronic devices? All of which must be supplemented by local dollars because the state does not fully fund them.
And if you are the charter commission with little common sense you ignore that part of the charter law that say you should: “take into consideration the quality of school options existing in the affected community.” Washington County got a B on the state’s latest A-F report card. The same score as Shelby and Baldwin counties, two of the top systems in Alabama. So this is not a failing system, nor a C system or a D system.
A close look at school and community demographics is an excellent barometer of what a community thinks about its schools. In Washington County, 65 percent of the population is white, 25 percent is African-American. The school system is practically the same, 63 percent white, 25 percent African-American. This is very unique.
In Montgomery County, for example, where I live and where I was on the school board, the community is 40 percent white and 55 percent African-American. However, the school system is 9 percent white and 78 percent African American. We have 40 private schools. Washington County has none. (There was once one at McIntosh, but it closed.)
Numbers such as these give tremendous insight into a community and how people view its education system. But digging them out takes a wee bit of due diligence And understanding what they mean takes some common sense. One wonders if the charter commission cares for either.
The law also says the commission should “require significant and objective evidence of interest for the public charter school from the community the public charter school wishes to serve.” However, such support is almost non-extent. In fact, The Washington County Education Association sent nearly 1,000 postcards voicing opposition to the members of the charter commission board.
Their reward? When opponents showed up in Montgomery for the May 14 commission meeting, one of the board members dressed them down for sending the cards.
And a charter commission staffer told people in Washington County they were unaware of any opposition to the new charter school.
To me, common sense also means understanding the difference between right and wrong. What is being forced down the neck of Washington County is wrong.
Five of the appointments to the state charter commission board expire May 31, 2019. Isn’t it high time we find some folks with real common sense and put them on this board?
From the moment I first heard about the charter school ruckus in Washington County, I wondered why Eric Mackey, state superintendent, was not looking into the situation.
I was told that neither the state school board, nor Mackey, has jurisdiction over the charter commission. However, I am not convinced this is the case.
Page 25, line 18 of the charter law as passed in 2015 says: the department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. The law defines “department” as the state department of education.
And “authorizer” is defined as: an entity authorized under this act to review applications, approve or reject applications, enter into charter contracts with applicants, oversee public charter schools, and decide whether to renew, not renew, or revoke charter contracts.”
I asked a longtime friend and attorney, with experience working with school boards, to interpret this for me. Her reply: You don’ have to have legal training to know what this says.”
Even more, the contract between Woodland Prep in Washington County and the charter commission states: The School shall be subject to the supervision of the State Superintendent and the State Board of Education, including accountability measures, to the same extent as non-charter public schools, except as otherwise expressly provided by law.
But if the state superintendent is investigating, I am unaware of it. However, I do know that The Washington Post is working on an article about Washington County and Eric Mackey would not talk to their reporter.
This entire episode is cloaked in secrecy, falsified information, missed deadlines, silence and suspicion. So when the superintendent will not answer questions from the media, suspicions only mount.
The charter commission and the state department continue to say that there are 900 students in Washington County attending private schools. But no one in Washington County believes this, nor do I. There are no private schools in the county. (At one time there was one at McIntosh, but it closed.) The closest private school option to the south end of the county is a private school in Saraland. But since it is 32 miles from McIntosh to Saraland and private school students must provide their own transportation, it is unlikely many–if any–would choose this school.
That leaves Jackson Academy in Clarke County and South Choctaw Academy in Choctaw County as the only viable options. Info from their web sites tells us that COMBINED, they only have a maximum of 550 students.
No one at the state department will respond to my inquiries as to where they get number of 900 students.
The charter commission met on May 14, 2018 to consider charter applications for Eugene Edwards Technology Charter in Bessemer; LEAD Academy in Mo0ntgomery and Woodland Prep in Washington county. All three applications were reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago. The recommendation from NACSA was to deny each of them..
Eugene Edwards was not approved by the charter school commission. However, both LEAD Academy and Woodland Prep were. One has to wonder if the fact that both have management contracts with Sonier Tarim of Texas. the controversial Muslim with ties to the Gulen charter movement, played any part in these decisions.
Certainly questions need to be asked. So why isn’t the one person whose responsibility is to look out for the 722,000 students in our public schools, asking them?
Mark Hall lives in Austin, TX and practiced law for 25 years. But even as a child he was fascinated by film making and recalls trying his hand with an 8mm camera back then. So when he hung out his law shingle in Austin 20 years ago, he also joined the Austin Film Society. He produced his first documentary in 2010 and put his law license on an inactive status in 2014.
“After 25 years of practicing law, I was ready to take a break,” he says.
He began work on his film, Killing Ed, in early 2011. The film explores the controversial Gulen charter school movement.
Mark will show his film at Washington County school in Chatom on April 29 at 6:15 p.m. This is fitting since a lot of the controversy about the Woodland Prep charter scheduled to open in Washington County this year involves Soner Tarim of Dallas, who is connected to the Gulen movement.
Here is a fascinating exchange I had with Mark:
What prompted you to pick this topic for Killing Ed?
I was serving on the board of Austin Sister Cities International when our board was approached by the mayor to establish a sister city in Turkey. The mayor had taken an all-expense paid 10 day trip to Turkey (with 9 other influential members of the Austin community) with an unknown group called the “Institute of Interfaith Dialog” in Houston. When he returned he made it clear we needed to establish a sister city with Antalya, Turkey.
I was chosen to conduct the due diligence on the application for this municipal agreement since I was an attorney. I thought it would take two weeks. Instead, after 18 months of talking with Turkish journalists, State Department desk officers, members of the local Turkish community and looking at documents, I had not found one person who recommended that we create this relationship with the Institute of Interfaith Dialog (now called the Dialogue Foundation of the Southwest).
Our board learned this organization was a front for a transnational religious cult headed by an imam named Fethullah Gülen. We voted down the application unanimously on three occasions. In spite of our unanimous objections, the mayor worked to have the agreement approved by City Council without informing us. It was quite a shock – and showed the corrosive influence of followers of Fethullah Gülen who will do whatever it takes to achieve their objectives.
After this, I started getting phone calls from a reporter at the New York Times. She told me that not only were the Gülenists focused on the purchase of influence in American politics (as we’d seen in Austin) but were actively building tax-payer financed charter schools all over Texas. She was preparing an investigative piece on the growth of these schools. I decided that my production company should start filming around the issue of charter schools and the mysterious group that was rapidly building the largest chain of such schools in Texas and the USA.
How long did this project take?
We started shooting in March of 2011. Principal photography was finished in mid-2015. We spent 2015 editing the film (which took nearly a year). Music for the film was added in early 2016. We premiered “Killing Ed” at a theater in New York City in late March 2016.
I never expected that there would be a coup attempt by the Gülen Movement in Turkey in July 2016. It was quite a shock. Given what we saw on television and the Internet, I made the decision to edit the film a bit in August 2016 – adding new footage about the coup and the failure of a US governmental and political response to this violent event. What people will see at the screening in Alabama is this “epilogue” version of “Killing Ed” which I think of as its final and best cut.
How much research did you do?
I was very fortunate early on to meet Sharon Higgins from Oakland, CA. She is a brilliant researcher who would play a key role in the film – she explains a lot of the misdealings of the Gülen Movement and the problems of charter schools in general. She was kind enough to share a lot of data. Diane Ravitch – who was once a supporter of charter schools – was a big help. Her book “Reign of Error” helped me understand the terrible consequences we face as a nation should charter schools replace our traditional public schools with privately managed ones. The Texas Secretary of State’s incorporation documents helped piece together how the various Gülen schools, businesses and non-profits were linked together by various members of the cult. It took a long time to piece this story together. The U.S. media has not done a good job of reporting on the Gülen Movement.
Did you encounter any problems on a subject this sensitive?
Lots of problems. First of all, the Gülen Movement is a relatively secret organization. Their members do not like to be interviewed unless they control the setting and the message. We tried for almost a year to interview Soner Tarim, the high-ranking Gülenist who started the “Harmony” charter school chain in Texas. After emails and certified letters, it was clear we would not be allowed to talk to him. As shown in “Killing Ed”, we decided to go to the Harmony headquarters in Houston to confront him. But no one knew where he was or when he might show up. Instead, a PR person came to try and decide if we were ‘friend or foe’ and how to deal with us.
This was common with the Gülen movement – even though you are very interested in hearing their perspective they are evasive. And it is often a mistruth or a highly ‘massaged’ PR version of the truth. We also encountered situations where my camera operator had a laser aimed at his camera’s lens to incur temporary blindness, threats of arrest for criminal trespass (even though we were on public easements), threats of lawsuits to shut down the production of the film, and other problems. I learned that it is very difficult to make a film when the main elements of the film strive so hard to avoid being seen for what they really are: a cult group that apparently is making hundreds of millions of dollars from school taxes in the USA.
One of the most frustrating problems to me personally was trying to show “Killing Ed” at any of the Texas film festivals. We entered the film at all of them in the state – from very small to the largest. No such luck. Even though I’ve won awards for my work at film festivals here and abroad. An expose on an Islamist cult, along with criticism of the charter school movement, was just too much ‘truth’ for the current culture in Texas. It’s one reason the Huffington Post called “Killing Ed” ‘the film Texas doesn’t want you to see.”
What surprises did you come across?
One of the oddest surprises I found was the fact that the conservative Christian politicians who run the state of Texas were so beholden to the theory of “‘education reform” that they were allowing an Islamist group like the Gülen Movement grow unimpeded in the state. The most powerful politicians know all about the problems of this antidemocratic cult (that now operates 62 charter schools in Texas), but don’t want confront it. They most certainly would not agree with the teachings of Fethullah Gülen but they look the other way – I guess there is too much money from charter school organizations and lobbyists for them to change their mind..
Other surprises along the way were just how many Gülen-related businesses and non-profits operate from the funds generated by the Gülen charter schools in the USA. It’s a huge web of interconnected and secretive dealings that seem to be designed to extract funds from any source possible – including tax dollars for “real” public schools. I also found the numerous state, local and national politicians who had sold their influence to the Gülen cult to be a surprise and most troubling. Some of this is portrayed in the film. I didn’t realize just how corrupt our nation has become.
How has the movie been received?
It’s been well-received in states that are actively dealing with the Gülen Movement and charter schools. Although we have not officially released the film in Turkey, “Killing Ed” has been in the news there – especially since the July 2016 coup attempt, attributed to the Gülen Movement. Sadly, I feel that my home state of Texas has not really gotten the message about the destructiveness of the path it has taken with charter schools and its wide approval of the Gülen cult. We’ve shown the film a number of times in Texas but the local media has basically ignored the film and its message.
How many showings? How many states have you been to?
“Killing Ed” has been screened in theaters and public auditoriums 32 times since March 2016. It’s been shown in Hong Kong, Turkey and Germany as well as North America. The largest screening was in Los Angeles where over 900 people watched the film. Hard to estimate how many people have seen the film since it is now distributed to educational institutions around the country as well as via DVD and On Demand streaming video around the world. I believe Alabama is the 11th state in which we’ve shown the film.
What did you learn?
After all the work on “Killing Ed,” I have learned that our nation has huge problems we – meaning each and every one of us living here – need to correct. We need to confront our political leaders about why they would accept campaign donations from a foreign cult group with ties to Islamism. Why would they publicly support a cult that infiltrated the police, judiciary and media in their home country with designs on overthrowing the elected government there. We need to scrutinized the incredible tales told by “education reform” advocates and the billionaires that support them – and slow down the growth of the schools they open. We need to focus on our local schools and be involved in our local school boards. And we need to hold our national law enforcement and intelligence agencies accountable for supporting groups like the Gülen Movement in our country and elsewhere. The USA is a big ship – it will take a lot to turn it around. But starting locally and regionally I think we can do it. I remain hopeful.
Editor’s note: Both the Woodland Prep charter in Washington County and the LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery have management agreements with Soner Tarim’s Unity School Services of Texas.
If you think Millry, AL is small, (population 546 in 2010) then go a few miles west of town to the Aquilla community. Its the kind of place that are sprinkled across the state. You know, you see one of those little green signs with a name, but nothing more.
This was the childhood home of Dr. Sarah Odom, valedictorian of Millry High in 1987, and long time educator. She taught science in Mobile County before joining the private sector of education. She has had her own education consulting business since 2012. She has traveled extensively in other states and is familiar with charter schools.
Like many in Washington County, she has watched the commotion there concerning a new charter school and the management team they have engaged and decided to write Governor Ivey with her concerns. With her permission, her edited letter is below.
Dear Governor Ivey:
I live in Washington County, and I love my county. I am a small business owner with two S-corps–an educational consulting business, Vann-Ray, LLC, and a ministry with my husband, Odom Ministries. I am a former science teacher and I love education. But I especially love “public” education. Why? Because most of my people were born in poverty, and public education has made such an impact in my life. Without it, I would not be where I am today, save the Grace of God.
I am the first person to say that our public schools need to improve, including in Washington County – not because we have bad schools – but rather all schools should seek improvement on a daily basis. I know parents get disgruntled. I’ve been one myself. However, I believe in working with our public schools to make needed changes.
I am aware that parents should have a right to choose. But I also know that the masses do not always have the information needed to make informed decisions. I also believe leaders, such as yourself, are placed in positions to PROTECT the people from danger. Will you, Governor Ivey, protect Alabamians? Will you protect this small little county, which may seem insignificant to others, but means oh so much to me?
As a consultant, I’ve been in charter schools and met with their leaders. Some were awesome. Some were poorly run (as one in St. Louis where the math teacher could not speak fluent English), and some frankly scared me to death (when I left I felt I had been put on the FBI watch list). So, I understand the right for parental choice. And I even understand the reasoning behind why companies do business in education. So, I’m not anti-business in schools. It is necessary. Schools cannot provide everything they need without outsiders. I get that.
However, what I don’t get is taking far more than necessary to survive and make a living. I see NO REASON why a company would need (as reported) $300,000.to manage a small school like Woodland Prep, the school proposed for this county.
I was offered the opportunity to be part of this charter school venture. I turned it down.
Somehow, despite my turning down this offer, my name still found its way on the original application without my permission. You would be surprised at what I went through to become disassociated from it. And I’m upset at the sly infiltration, indoctrination, and outright erosion of our culture in Washington County.
Where is the oversight of the state department of education? Is this REALLY the best use of our tax dollars? Are we so far off the course in Alabama public education that we need foreign governments to step in to save our kids? Lord Jesus, I hope not! We, Alabamians, are smarter than this.
Most of the Washington County educators and residents see Mr. Tarim (the owner of the Texas based management company contracted to run the charter) as an invader, not as someone to save our educational system. .
I beg you, Governor Ivey… I implore you… I beseech you!
Please stop this invasion! Please infuse funding into the betterment of our own truly public institutions.
And if there is anything I can do to help, here I am… a native… someone who deeply cares for children, offering my time, talent and knowledge.
Sarah B. Odom, PhD
All charter school applications must be evaluated by a qualified entity before action by the state charter school commission. From the outset, this was done by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers based in Chicago. Today it is being done by the Auburn Center for Evaluation, a part of the Auburn University College o Education.
The NACSA report for Woodland Prep, dated May 7, 2018, “takes no prisoners” so to speak. Let’s just say that had the evaluation been your report card in the 5th grade, you would have dreaded your mother seeing it.
The review concentrated on three major areas: Education Program Design & Capacity; Operations Plan & Capacity and Financial Plan & Capacity. Grades given are: Meets the Standard; Partially Meets the Standard and Does Not Meet the Standard.
Woodland Prep got Partially Meets the Standard in all three areas. This score is defined as: “The response meets the criteria in some respects, but lack detail and/or requires additional information in one or more areas.”
The Executive Summary of the NACSA review plainly says under Recommendation: DENY. And the first line of the Summary Analysis says: “The Woodland Preparatory proposal does not meet the standard for approval.”.
Now you see why you don’t want mother to see that report card.
Other comments from the evaluation:
“Woodland Prep’s educational plan does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design that ensures students will meet or exceed standards, particularly in high school.
The most significant concern is related to its engagement of Unity School Services. The application includes limited information about USS, its performance track record, or its capacity to support Woodland Prep. The proposal does not address what other organizations were considered, how USS was selected, or a plan for holding the ESP accountable. Applicant was not able to sufficiently address these critical aspects during the interview, which raises significant concerns about the ability of the ESP agreement..
No information is provided about its fundraising track record. This is a concern, as the applicant’s plans include raising $500,000 to launch the school and secure its facility.
The educational plan is particularly insufficient as it relates to high school. The applicant acknowledged that offering AP classes in such a small high school will be a financial challenge, and did not offer more than an assurance that it would be able to do so. The plan also does not address plans for pre-kindergarten, despite enrolling Pre-K students beginning in Year 1.”
The document goes on like this for several pages, raising concerns about staffing, facilities, financing and even a loan rate of nine percent and fundraising capacity. For instance, it says: “The board did not provide evidence of its fundraising or track record or capacity, nor did the application include letters of interest or support from potential donors.”
Something that caught my eye was the statement that the school would be located on a piece of land costing $100. However, the Corrective Warranty Deed shows Woodland Prep actually paid $91.000 for the property they are now grading.
All of which brings us to the $64,000 question. With this information at hand, how the devil did the charter school commission vote 7 to 2 to approve this application?
And when will the Montgomery bureaucrats ask questions and find out just what went on.?
As we all know, news travels fast in this high-tech world we all live in. Even if it is news coming out of rural Washington County, AL.
Dr. Diane Ravitch is in New York City. A former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, she is founder of the Network for Public Education and without doubt, one of the nation’s leading voices opposing the corporate takeover of our public schools. She also has the country’s most widely read education blog, getting 100,000 views per week.
She has now posted three pieces about Washington County. You can see them here, here and here.
And now, an article with the byline of Vakkas Dogantekin and posted in Ankara, Turkey, has shown up. Here it is.
Why all the attention? It has a lot to do with the fact that both the Woodland Prep charter and the LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery have engaged a Muslim from Texas, Soner Tarim, who has ties to the Gulen charter movement, to operate their schools. Gulen charters are very controversial due to their founder, Fetullah Gulen. Many contend that he heads the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).
In addition to all of this attention, The Washington Post is expected to publish an article about Washington County within the next few days.
Given the situation, it is very baffling why the state department of education contends that it has no jurisdiction over the Alabama Charter School Commission and why Eric Mackey, state superintendent, seems reluctant to ask questions and come to the defense of Washington County.
After all, the state superintendent has a responsibility to the people of Alabama to work for the betterment of all public schools–not pick and choose which systems he wants to help and which ones he doesn’t.