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Opinion | “We don’t want no charter school and we don’t want no Muslims”

The gentleman who made this statement was one of 200 people who came to the Washington County high school in Chatom on Monday night, April 29.  He was probably in his 60’s.  His face was weathered and he wore a baseball cap and work shirt.

Like everyone else in the auditorium, he had sat attentively as Texas documentary film maker Mark Hall showed his movie, KILLING ED.  This is a deep dive into the controversial Gulen charter school movement.  The film took five years to produce.

Hall was in Chatom, AL this night because the proposed Woodland Prep charter school has a management contract with Soner Tarim of Texas, who has been closely affiliated with the Gulen charter network for years.  He started the first school in Houston in 2000.  His goal was to have 50 schools and 35,000 students by 2020.  The chain now has 57 schools in the Lone Star state.

Judging from other questions and comments, the aforementioned local summed up the sentiments of the crowd about as well as could be done.  He may not have been politically correct in this day and age.  But he was understood by all and I doubt being politically correct is high on his list of things to do.

The Gulen movement is often described as a cult composed of several million followers of Fethullah Gulen, who exiled himself from Turkey to the US. in 1999.  He lives in northern Pennsylvania from which he directs a vast network of schools and other businesses.

Hall, who practiced law for 25 years, became interested in the Gulen movement 10+ years ago because of the rapid growth of their schools in Texas.  He interviewed politicians, former Gulen school teachers, former students, contractors, Turkish journalists and many more.  He found a very secretive world where information is closely guarded and people of importance are wined, dined and wooed.  A world where male teachers are paid double what females are paid, where school construction is often not up to par and subcontractor may, or may not, be paid as promised.

He included a video a teacher shot of special ed students spending their classes delegated to sitting on the hallway floor outside their room.  Teachers told of having to watch videos of Fethullah Gulen sermons.

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Proponents of Woodland Prep attempt to brush off concerns about Tarim.  Thad Becton is chairman of the Washington County Students First board of directors that oversees the new school.  Here is a paragraph In an April 19 article in the Washington County News: 

“I consider Texas a conservative state, Becton continued..  “…Would Texas give (Tarim) 50-plus schools if they thought that was a possibility?  It’s very odd for people to think that.  There is a group–if you go back and look it came from a blog many, many years ago.  All the news report out of Texas and everything that has been investigated proven none of that has been confirmed true.” 

(While Texas is conservative, it is not nearly as much as Mr. Becton indicates judging from recent elections.  While Donald Trump got 62 percent of the vote in Alabama in 2016, he only received 52 percent in Texas.  In 2018 incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz only got 51 percent in defeating Beto O’Rourke.  Texas has 36 congressman, 13 of them are Democrats.  That’s 36 percent.  In comparison, only one of Alabama’s seven congressional seat is held by a Democrat.  This is 14 percent.)

Texan Hall read this portion of the article to the crowd and declared that Becton’s defense of Tarim is simply not factual.  “Any insinuation that the Texas Education Agency has thoroughly investigated Tarim in not true,” said Hall.  The fact Hall lives in Texas and has stacks of documentation to back his statements certainly gives him credibility in this case.

But at the end of the evening, the crowd was still left with many unanswered questions such as: after the National Association of Charter
School Authorizers recommended that Woodland Prep not be approved, why did the state charter commission board ignore them and vote 7-2 for approval?  After people in Washington County sent 500 postcards to charter commission board members expressing their opposition to the school, why do staff of the commission still say they were unaware of opposition?  If members of the state charter commission board are to be “fair and impartial,” why did members of this board “dress down” a delegation from Washington County for sending the postcards at the May 14, 2018 board meeting in Montgomery.

Why has the state superintendent of education not launched a full scale investigation of this entire escapade?  After all, it is his responsibility to oversee public education in Alabama and charter schools are considered to be public.  Why is he not doing his job?

Yes, it was a very interesting night in Chatom April 29.  When 200 people show up for a community meeting on a week night in a community of only 1,300 good folks, something is definitely going on.

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But the over-riding lesson of what is taking place in Washington County is that this is really a wakeup call for the entire state.  If a board in Montgomery can appear to ignore the wishes of this little county, how long will it be before Soner Tarim comes knocking at someone else’s door?


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