Monday’s New York Times report on the procurement activities of the charter schools run by the Cosmos Foundation, an organization connected to the Turkey-based religious movement led by Fethullah Gulen hits upon the issues of financial management discussed yesterday on Dropout Nation in its analysis of the similar problems faced by charter schools and for-profits colleges. And as that analysis pointed out, it is critical for the movement to think and act critically on ensuring that those issues are addressed both on the operational, communications and advocacy fronts.
The issues regarding Cosmos in many ways seem to be much ado about not much: It has a penchant for using the H1-B visa system, bringing over teachers from Turkey and other countries with low credentials; but given that the nation’s credentialing system for teachers is rather meaningless in terms of ensuring teacher quality, the critique doesn’t stand scrutiny. And while the questions surrounding Cosmos’ contracting practices (i.e. favoring Gulen-connected vendors over outsiders) deserve a deeper investigation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote the piece didn’t even do something as simple as look at Cosmos’ filings with the Internal Revenue Service, which would shed some light on its fiscal activities. Essentially, the piece argues that charters aren’t subjected to enough scrutiny, an line of argument that has some factual basis; but it only does a good job of offering smoke and whispers instead of strong, thoughtful investigative journalism.
Yet the story and the polemic attacks against charters that will be spurred from this is once again proof that it doesn’t take a well-researched study or report to actually spur backlash against a sector or movement. Again, as the for-profit college sector has learned with last year’s release of the Government Accountability Office’s spectacularly inaccurate and incredible report on the sector, in education, bad studies and thinly-reported stories last forever and do even more damage than the verifiable facts themselves. Add in the nativist sentiment that has resurged in the last six years (a particular matter given Cosmos’ connections to the Gulen movement) and you have even more problems.
Given this reality, along with the real issues of quality and financial management that charters do face, the fact that few people can accurately describe what a charter school is, and the willingness of status quo defenders to play fast-and-loose with everything, charter advocates must continually push for improving teacher and curriculum quality, and more-strongly police its own ranks. This may even include creating standards and procedures for contracting and procuring services — rules that can easily be picked up from the private sector, particularly in the healthcare field — that would assure taxpayers that there’s no funny business going on.
This is not just true for the charter school movement. As companies such as News Corp. move into the education arena, they will face the anti-intellectually-driven skepticism of education traditionalists, who have little knowledge of economics and even less willingness to tolerate outsiders coming onto their playground. (Education Sector Managing Director Bill Tucker makes this point in the comment section of yesterday’s report.) Corporate education providers will also have to make sure that the quality of what they offer is better than what education traditionalists will tout, as well as team up with reformers and grassroots activists to push the compelling vision of reforming American public education. They must: The long knives are already out.
Update: The Cosmos Foundation issued a response to the Times story.