When Soner Tarim pleaded his case for four new charter schools in Austin, TX on June 14, the Texas school board was not impressed and voted 8-5 to deny his application. Four Republicans and four Democrats turned him down.
Yes, the same Soner Tarim who has management contracts for charters in Washington County and Montgomery
Here is part of what the Austin American-Statesman had to say about what happened:
“In a victory for the Austin school district, the State Board of Education on Friday rejected an application 8-5 by a new charter school operator to gain a toehold in the Austin district.
Royal Public Schools, created by Soner Tarim, founder and former chief executive of charter school giant Harmony Public Schools, was seeking to open new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, near Burnet Middle School in North Austin and in the Houston area by August 2020.
The Austin school district has been losing students — and the money that comes with those students — for several years, and district officials forcefully pushed back against the Royal application. Once a charter operator wins approval to open a school in a district, expansion requests are routinely approved administratively by the Texas Education Agency.
The decision came after board members questioned Tarim about his curriculum plans, whether he would serve special needs students and whether he would deny admission to certain students.
Board member Georgina C. Pérez, D-El Paso, pressed Tarim to explain why he targeted the Burnet Middle School area when none of the nearby campuses are failing under the state grading system.
Tarim justified opening schools near Burnet Middle School because he said six nearby schools were failing based on data from Children At Risk, a Houston-based organization that grades campuses every year in a widely cited report. But under the state accountability system, none of the campuses failed last school year.
“Royal has created a personal Royal-specific rating system,” said Pérez, who was one of four Democrats and four Republicans to vote against the Royal bid. “Your application and my information don’t match.”
Tarim said the board turned down his charter school because members fear he might create a charter network as large and successful as Harmony. Harmony had enrolled about 34,000 students across 56 campuses in 2018, including 4,000 in the Austin area.
Tarim said he would reapply. This is the second time the state has not approved his application for Royal.
A committee of the board on Thursday had recommended that the full board reject Royal. More than a dozen people testified against Royal, including Austin school district officials.
The Austin school district would lose $85 million over a 10-year period due to the loss of students to Royal Public Schools, Nicole Conley Johnson, the Austin district’s chief business and operations officer, told committee members.
“The district and our community can’t continue to sit idly on the side while our students and taxpayer funds are siphoned off by charter,” Conley Johnson told the American-Statesman after Friday’s vote. “We are certainly willing to compete, but in this case there were too many holes in what Royal was proposing, and our community saw right through it and made clear what the best choice was for our students.”
Responding to concerns raised by Pérez, Tarim denied he would ask prospective students about disciplinary history on the application form. He also promised to serve proportionately as many students with special needs as Austin district schools, although his application had said he would serve far less.
Tarim said he was meeting a need because no one else in the area would be integrating social emotional learning and science, technology, engineering and math curriculum as he was proposing.
The Austin school district has been one of the country’s pioneers of social emotional learning, Pérez said.
“It was very difficult for me to determine if it was innovative or unique,” she said. “Austin ISD has been implementing that for at least eight years on all of their campuses. Their pilots are even older than eight years. To implement SEL in every content area is absolutely nothing new.”
What stands out about all of this? Instead of using the state’s grading system to evaluate local schools, Tarim used one that supported his for-profit agenda. (Like he did in Washington County when he used numbers from U. S. News & World Report, instead of those from the Alabama department of education when he falsely claimed math proficiency levels were much lower than they actually are.)
And that he touted using social emotional learning because no one in the area was doing so when the truth is that Austin public schools have been using it for at least eight years.
This is Tarim at his finest. Ignore the truth. Make up your own facts.
And bless their hearts, our charter commission–unlike the Texas school board–does not question anything Traim tells them. We dance while he plays any tune he wishes. Maybe our commission should check with some folks in Texas about who they are dealing with. I will be glad to give them some phone numbers.
It’s reasonable to think there might be some controversy about any new school. Maybe where it is located, what it is named, who the principal may be, what courses will be taught?
But seldom do you expect the wholesale turmoil that hit rural Washington County, AL when locals learned that a handful of folks wanted to open a charter school. In a close-knit county of only 17,000 souls, news travels fast, people choose sides and lines are drawn.
Add in the fact that the new school went off to Texas and hired someone with a controversial past and the pot nears the boiling point very quickly.
However, to fully grasp how this all came to be, it is important to understand, as best we can, Washington County and its people.
In The Beginning
The county has been around longer than the state of Alabama. St. Stephens, on the county’s northern border on the Tombigbee River, was the Alabama territorial capital before there was officially an Alabama. Sitting atop a limestone bluff, it was a trading post, steamboat landing for cargo headed downstream to Mobile and the place where official territory business was conducted.
As was much of Alabama, many early Washington County settlers were descendants of Scots-Irish, a fierce, independent people. Larger in land area than Rhode Island, timber has long been its principal commodity. In fact, in 1870 local farmers only produced 1,200 bales of cotton, a far cry from the thousands of bales produced 100 miles north in the state’s Black Belt region.
Demographics underscore this fact. Only 25 percent of Washington County is African-American, as compared to Black Belt counties such as Wilcox, 72 percent; Perry, 69 percent; and Lowndes, 74 percent. A stark reminder that in 1850, cotton and slavery were synonymous.
To add more context, jump the Tombigbee and go a few miles into adjoining Clarke County where the War of Mitcham Beat took place in the 1890s. This was an honest-to-goodness shooting war that grew out of unrest between tenant farmers and merchants. At least a half dozen citizens were killed by vigilantes.
As with much of rural Alabama, politics in Washington is conservative to say the least. The election of Ronald Reagan basically switched the county from D to R when it comes to national politics. Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the county in 1996.
John McCain beat Barack Obama here in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney got 66 percent in 2012 and Donald Trump got 72 percent in 2016. In 2017 when Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat, he lost the county to Roy Moore 35-65.
So, what does all of this have to do with trying to put a charter school, Woodland Prep, on highway 17 between Chatom and Millry?
A helluva lot actually.
Without understanding who the 17,000 residents of the county are, the DNA that runs through them, how they react to things that are not familiar, etc. is burying your head in the sand and living in a fantasy world.
And from all indications, the Alabama Charter School Commission failed miserably to do their homework about the community and its nuances. Their first misstep was ignoring how the idea for this charter came to life. Normally one would think that some parents, disappointed in how a child is doing in school, come up with the idea of seeking an alternative education path.
This was not the case in Washington County.
Instead, the notion was largely conceived by a wife who could not come to grips with the fact that her husband, a teacher for many years, failed to always conduct himself professionally and because of this, the school board was forced to take action.
Though a native of the county and extremely well thought of by locals, an outsider sees her as someone who became overly zealous and to some degree, took advantage of both her job and longtime friends in an effort to avenge what she considered a wrong.
Hardly the foundation from which one embarks on such a complex challenge as starting a school from scratch, with little funding and no expertise.
Enter Soner Tarim
Somewhere along the way, this lady heard of Soner Tarim, who began the Harmony charter chain in Texas in 2000. She connected with him and apparently came to believe that no one in the country knows more about charters than he does.
Tarim is controversial and not held in high esteem by many in Texas. His most recent effort to get state approval for four new charters in Austin was resoundingly turned down by the state school board.
During his presentation before the Texas board he had a hard time keeping his facts straight and was tripped up on several occasions by school board members who had done their homework.
But obviously the good folks wanting a charter in Washington County drank his Kool Aid and did little background checking. Apparently neither did the staff and members of the state charter school commission.
The fact that Tarim is affiliated with the highly controversial Gulen Movement, has simply added another degree of complexity to the entire episode.
Unfortunately, this story took a tragic turn in June 2018 as the lady in question sat reading her Bible on her front porch one Sunday morning when her husband shot her in the head. He then killed himself.
The county was stunned. Suddenly the charter effort was without its primary mover and shaker.
And there was no one to be questioned as to why the application submitted to the Alabama charter commission, which Tarim says he largely prepared, was so riddled with inaccuracies and false claims.
For example, from the outset, proponents of the charter have declared that 900 students a day leave Washington County to attend private schools. But no one can verify where this number came from and a look at census data and other sources indicate that it is totally without credibility.
When Woodland Prep supporters were quizzed about this at a June 7, 2019 state charter commission meeting, their answer was that the lady who first used the number had access to lots of data and since she is no longer alive, they don’t question it.
End of discussion.
The State Charter Commission, etc.
Alabama passed its charter law in 2015. It set up a 10-member commission to govern charters. Four named by the governor, one by the Lt. Governor, three by the Speaker of the House and two by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Though members may serve up to six years, only two of the original ten remain. Presently, five of these members are serving terms that expired May 31, 2019 and there is an additional vacancy due to a member’s resignation in March 2019.
Judging from their actions involving Woodland Prep, as well as an overall lack of professionalism and attention to details, many feel that wholesale change in membership is due.
A very meaningful measure to see how a community feels about its schools is to compare school system demographics to community demographics. The fact that both the school and the country mirror one another in Washington County is insightful. African-Americans make up 25.1 percent of school population and 24.6 percent of county population. Whites are 63.0 percent of school population and 65.5 percent of the county.
This, coupled with the fact that there are no private schools in the county, speaks volumes about how the public feels about its school system.
By comparison, the Montgomery County school system is 78.5 percent African-American, while the county is only 57.3 percent. There are about 40 private schools in Montgomery.
Once again it is obvious the charter commission didn’t bother to do its homework.
It is impossible to believe that this board and its staff conducted adequate due diligence. How do you ignore the red flags in the application? How to you take unsigned “support” letters at face value? How do you maintain that there is not substantial local opposition to this school? How do you disregard the financial impact a charter will have on the existing public school system?
And how in the world do you pay the National Association of Charter School Authorizors thousands of dollars to evaluate charter applications and then ignore their recommendation to deny the Woodland Prep application?
(Interestingly enough, NACSA also recommended that the application for LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery be denied, but it too was approved. And surprise, surprise, both of these charters signed management agreements with Soner Tarim.)
Why has the state superintendent refused to conduct a wholesale investigation into this entire affair? Why has the state school board not demanded that he do so?
Too many have shirked their responsibility to put school children first. We have been told over and over that the charter law sets the commission above anyone’s jurisdiction.
However, the first and only real allegiance to education anyone in Montgomery, be they politician or bureaucrat, has is to help children and those local schools who teach them. When they are in harm’s way, you do what is right.
Besides, who is going to stop you? Is there an education policeman who will arrest you?
You don’t hide behind some legal ambiguity; you don’t try to placate this one or that one. You just do what is right. Period.
If you are the charter commission your allegiance is not to some guy from Texas who is more interested in money than in educating children. It is not to the money that people like Betsy DeVos and Alice Walton send to Alabama to fund political action committees. It is not to a think tank created by Jeb Bush.
You have a higher mission than to just plop down charter schools across the state’s landscape as it they were convenience stores.
And you understand that not all communities and school systems are identical. Washington County is unlike any other community in the state. Just as is Huntsville or Franklin County or Union Springs or Henry County.
There is not a farmer in the state who thinks corn planted on a worn-out red clay hill top will do as well as corn planted on rich bottomland. So why do we think what may work in one community will work in all of them?
We know that only about ten percent of all charter schools in the United States are in rural areas. Why?
Because most charters are business ventures, not educational ones. Do you think Soner Tarim would be involved in Washington County without a management contract that gives him 15 percent of all the revenue Woodland Prep will get? Do you think he woke up one morning in his six-bedroom house in Sugarland, TX with a burning desire to open a school in tiny Washington County because he was “called” to help their students?
Schools are a central part of the fabric of a rural community. The community often revolves around the school. Woodland Prep has the potential of taking $2.2 million away from the Washington County school system which struggles every day to meet its needs. People in this county resent that.
It will threaten the foundation of this system. Which community will want to close their school because a charter school took their funding?
In a system of only 2,650 students, would anyone in their right mind suggest opening another school with 260 students and diluting resources that now go to the seven schools in the system?
By and large rural communities look at outsiders with caution. Will Sonar Tarim ever be considered a member of this community?
These are all things the state charter commission failed to acknowledge.
Woodland Prep recently was given a one-year extension for their opening date because they could not meet enrollment expectations. The result? A community in continuing chaos. Teachers and bus drivers and custodians wondering if they will have a job a year from now.
It is a travesty that could have been easily avoided had charter commission staff and members done their homework and used some common sense.
But they didn’t. And Washington County is left twisting in the wind.
Winston County is a small, rural county in northwest Alabama. Double Springs, with just over 1,000 residents, is the county seat. Its “claim to fame” is the fact that citizens here were very opposed to Alabama withdrawing from the Union during the Civil War. When the Union Army invaded north Alabama in 1862, many locals joined forces with them.
Feelings ran so deep that county leaders met and made plans to secede from the Confederacy. And though this never occurred, the county is still often called the “Free State of Winston.”
To say that some in Washington County can relate to the thought of seceding from Alabama is not much of a stretch.
Hardly a day goes by that I am not in contact with someone in Washington County regarding the continuing upheaval there about the location of a charter school, Woodland Prep, between Chatom and Millry. They have fought this battle for more than 18 months and have hit one brick wall after another.
Their growing frustration is because no one will help them. Like all local school systems, they pay dues to several statewide groups that are supposed to “represent” education. But you can’t prove it by anyone in the county. “Apparently we are supposed to just be seen and not heard–and keep sending money to Montgomery,” one told me. This was evident in May when a charter bus load of folks made the 350-mile roundtrip to Montgomery and back to attend a state school board meeting–but were not allowed to speak.
“How the hell do you pretend this is a democracy when citizens can not address a public body?” asked one person who was on the bus. I do not have an answer for this very valid question.
The state charter commission has been no ally.
They have scoffed at their own guidelines, failed miserably when it comes to due diligence and paid the National Association of Charter School Authorizers thousands and thousands of dollars only to ignore their recommendations.
Or what about the legislature? After all, they wrote the law that created the charter commission. But turns out, they can’t even follow the laws they created.
The state school superintendent? The state school board? Those education groups that represent teachers, school boards, superintendents, principals, etc.? The Alabama Education Association did send some lawyers to town, but as someone at the meeting said, “They blew in, blew off and blew out.”
Others have sent emails saying locals should not be overly concerned because the charter school will probably never open. Wow. Such a statement is little more than an affront to someone having to prepare for the potential loss of $2 million from their budget. Maybe they are right. But then, given how the charter commission acts, maybe they are wrong.
Alabama loves to pound its chest and proclaim its faith in all that is good and decent. (Heck, the Ford dealer in Chatom was recently giving away Bibles to anyone who bought a new car or truck.) But talking about the Golden Rule and actually putting it into action, are two entirely different things. One Washington County educator summed it up this way, “Evidently in Montgomery the Golden Rule means we are to send them our gold and not question how they rule.”
Supposedly when Winston County was trying to figure out what to do, they met at Looney’s Tavern in Double Springs. To my knowledge, there is not a Looney’s Tavern in Washington County. However, I have no doubt that Jake’s Restaurant in Chatom, a popular meat and three, will gladly host a gathering of those who want to talk about creating the “Free State of Washington.”
I will volunteer to buy the coffee.
Unity School Services is the education management organization, created by Soner Tarim, signed on to run the new Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery. Documentary film maker Mark Hall of Austin, TX has spent years following the dealings of Tarim, who is affiliated with the controversial Gulen charter movement.
Hall was recently in Washington County to show his film, KILLING ED, to a crowd of 200 local citizens who oppose Woodland Prep. He later looked up the “office” for Unity School Services in Sugarland, TX. Here is the report he posted on Facebook. We use this with his permission.
“MYSTERY OFFICE :: We paid a visit last week to the Gülen Movement’s ’Unity School Services‘ (“USS”) a company operated by high-level Gülenist, Soner Tarim. USS is located in Sugar Land, Texas a suburb of Houston. The company was incorporated as an LLC by Soner’s wife in May, 2018 and is contracted to administer the controversial “Woodland Prep” charter school in rural Washington County, Alabama. USS also appears to be the for-profit charter management organization (CMO) that will manage “LEAD Academy” in Montgomery, AL and the new “Royal” charter schools Soner Tarim has applied to open in Texas. The company has already locked down contracts for millions of tax dollars.
We found Unity School Services address on the USS website (see photo below). The website is very typical of Gülen Movement sites for its businesses – no photos of management team or experts, lots of marketing talk (“the trusted authority”), and little information about how the long list of services will be provided. USS has a long list of services that it says it can offer: curriculum, school management, HR, professional development, technology, etc. The address for USS is 2245 Texas Drive in Sugar Land, Texas part of the Houston area.
We drove over to have a look. It’s a nice 4 story building. However, going to the office directory for the building there is NO LISTING for Unity School Services. We went upstairs to Suite 300 where USS is supposed to be located according to its own website. No listing for Unity School Services or any other company was on the outside. Turns out that Suite 300 is the location of a “Regus” mini-suites rental company – that offers cubicles and space for small mom and pop-like businesses. Going inside, we asked the receptionist if we could talk to someone from Unity School Services. She told us that “there was no one here from that company.“ I asked her if USS had any employees in the space. Answer: No. I looked at the board with the companies renting cubicles and space within the Regus office – no listing for Unity School Services (see photo) I said why would Unity School Services list their business address at this building? Answer: ”they come in by appointment.’ Evidently to use the conference room. No office. No employees. Not even a filing cabinet.
Is THIS the type of business that Alabama and Texas taxpayers should pay millions of tax dollars to? How will USS provide services with no employees? I did notice a page on their website (“Locations”) that makes the odd statement that it provides “educational services for its clients at various cities and states in the United States and throughout the world.” Really? From a Regus mini-suites address and no office? The page lists a number of states where Gülen charter schools are located – are “USS team members” teachers and administrators at Gülen Movement charter schools that will be brought in to run schools like Woodland Prep in Alabama? Public schools require lots of people to make them function – and they involve our children. Schools can’t be operated like a non-asset tech company such as Uber or Amazon. They are vital to our communities and deserve the attention of teachers, principals and other staff who live and work in those communities. Is Unity School Services a ‘real’ company deserving of our tax dollars? Or is it another apparent attempt by Gülenists to generate funds for its cult members? I don’t know – but worth asking questions about this.”
Go here to see Mark’s Facebook post, complete with pictures.
This is just one more example of why the good people of Alabama should be suspect about what is going on and why we are about to send tax dollars intended to help our public schools to a company surrounded by controversy in Texas..
Lord only knows how many hours I have spent in the last three months or so digging deeper and deeper into the charter mess in Washington County. And have written more blog posts about it than most readers probably have cared to read..
But those who know me either personally, or only through these pages, know I am very passionate about some things. Such as misuse of public education dollars and disregard for public school teachers, students and administrators. Abuse of political power. Being unprofessional. Telling me something dumb and expecting me to be dumb enough to believe it. Thinking that holding an elected or appointed office means you are not held to the same standards as the rest of us.
And, of course, there is my passion for country folks and country places. It is a part of my DNA that I will never attempt to deny. Nor could I if I wanted to. It’s why I leave the interstate just to go down a road I’ve never traveled. And I only do this in rural places. I have never exited an interstate going through Atlanta or Charlotte or Nashville of St. Louis and said, “Gosh, I wonder where this street will take me?”
So for all of these reasons, I have been somewhat relentless in my pursuit of the story unfolding in Washington County.
It is a story that needs telling.
(And for the life of me, I can not understand why whatever “major media” we still have in Alabama have basically ignored it.)
The good people of Alabama need to know what happens when people fail to carry out theie duties as they should, when people show no empathy for local communities and the impact their decisions can cause, when people refuse to simply do what is right, when we don’t follow laws that that are plainly spelled out, etc.
While it may come as a surprise to some, I am not opposed to charter schools per se. I wholeheartedly support the University Charter School at the University of West Alabama. I was there a few weeks ago interviewing three teachers who were part of the first class of the Black Belt Teacher Corps.
But comparing this school to Woodland Prep in Washington county is totally apples to oranges. The UWA charter had an education infrastructure right at the door step. In fact, Jan Miller is dean of the college of education at UWA and her office is in one end of the same building that houses the charter school.
In comparison, Woodland Prep had none of this and ended up signing a management agreement with someone from Texas who can no longer get approval to open a charter in his home state.
So, if you are looking for a program for a group and think I can be of help, let me know. firstname.lastname@example.org Have car, will travel.
Alabama is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to charter schools, having only passed a law allowing these schools in 2015. Which says to many that we would be wise to take some lessons from states who have played the charter game much longer than we have.
Take Georgia for example. They passed a charter law in 1994. Like Alabama, they also have a state charter commission to oversee charter schools.
But unlike Alabama, the Georgia charter commission is becoming more cautious in granting charter applications and is actually giving first thought to students–not charter promoters– when approving applications.
This is in stark contrast to the Alabama charter commission which ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter school Authorizors to not approve Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery.
Here is what veteran education reporter Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says about the Georgia charter commission mindset:
“Is the purpose of the charter school movement to provide families more choices or better choices? That question underpins a shift in the rhetoric of charter school advocacy in Georgia.
Increasingly, proponents are stepping back from the early promise that charter schools would use their flexibility to outperform traditional schools on standardized tests. Instead, supporters are lobbying policymakers to consider other metrics in judging charter schools, including whether parents report greater satisfaction. It would be similar to suggesting that while a new freeway alternative to I-285 wouldn’t necessarily improve gridlock or commuting time, drivers would enjoy the scenery more.
In an essay on this blog, for example, an advocate recently wrote that charters should be “acknowledged for their uniqueness and judged by their raw impact, not by standardized tests or an arbitrary grading system.”
All public schools are judged by standardized tests scores. When charter schools were first introduced in Georgia, the rationale was that innovative models were needed because of the low-test scores of public schools serving the state’s poorest children.
Now, some 20 years later, charter schools serving low-income students also struggle with test scores. On average, charter schools perform about the same as traditional public schools, and student demographics play a key role in that performance.
A campaign is now under way to change the standards to which Georgia charter schools are held, and a chief target is the State Charter Schools Commission, which is being cast as an impediment to charter school growth.
Created by a 2012 constitutional amendment, the commission has the power to overrule local boards of education and approve and fund charter schools. To its credit, the commission has been judicious in approving charters, which explains why Georgia is not among the growing list of states mired in major charter school scandals and failures.
But the commission makes no apology for its prudence.
At the commission’s June meeting, Chair Tom Lewis addressed recent columns and letters to the editor in newspapers around the state criticizing how few applications the commission approved
“We’ve got a little word called accountability and we watch that very closely and continue to do that,” he said. “We want to say emphatically that we support charter schools. We support virtual charter schools. We have stated from the beginning that it is our mission to make sure that we have a better system across the board.”
“When we are looking at applications, we want to make sure the students are going to be better served,” said Lewis. “We are not here to approve a bunch of applications. At the end of the day, it is what is best for the students. This is what they deserve, and we are not changing.”
Best for students? Now, there is a novel idea for sure.