A smorgasbord of a Mike Madigan/Gulen charter school scandal!

xmastable1998cropIt took today’s expose of the Gulen charter school network by the Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopoulos (yes, the one I resent!)  to pull me away from my Christmas baking and cooking. There was just such a banquet of choice items to share….

PURE has been reporting for a while on the secretive Turkish cult behind the largest network of charter schools in the nation. We first learned about Gulen charter schools from Parents Across America founding member Sharon Higgins, who maintains the most comprehensive web site on the schools and other enterprises run by the Turkish emigre to the US Fethullah Gulen, a recluse now living in southern Pennsylvania.

Gulen runs the Concept charter school chain in Chicago, which includes its Rogers Park school, Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA), and two newer schools in McKinley Park and Austin. CPS refused to approve those two schools but its decision was overruled by the Illinois State Charter School Commission run by former head of CPS’s office of New Schools (or whatever it was called then), Jeannie Nowaczewski.

The Sun-Times story includes the following tidbits:

  • As the first, and so far only, charter operator to benefit from the decisions of the 2-year-old state agency, Concept is getting 33 percent more funding per pupil for those two new schools than the city school system gives other charters.
  • CPS officials denied Concept, citing concerns over “fluctuations in its academic performance” in recent years and also because CMSA test scores didn’t outperform the average scores of schools in its section of the city by at least 10 percent — the benchmark CPS uses to decide whether current charter operators will be allowed to expand.

  • Concept officials boast that 90 percent of the students at CMSA are accepted to colleges. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse, though, show 50 percent of CMSA graduates actually enroll in college, compared to the public school system’s average of 57 percent.
  •  Most of Concept’s schools are in Ohio, where the network was started. Of its 19 schools there, 12 were given D grades by state officials, 4 got C’s and 3 received B’s this year. Concept’s Indiana Math and Science Academy in Indianapolis got an F, according to state officials.

So, why the support for Gulen in Chicago?

Well, Nowaczewski drags out that old lame “waiting list” excuse: “Parents are smart consumers.” Not when they are lied to about the product, Jeannie.

No, the real reason for the support is the one driving all other major decision making in this state of shame: clout. Here’s how the Sun-Times details it:

  • Michael Madigan (is) … a powerful advocate of Concept and the faith-based Gulen movement to which the schools are connected.
  • In a video the school posted on YouTube, Madigan praised the school.
  • The speaker’s son Andrew Madigan also visited and filmed an endorsement of the CMSA campus…. Andrew Madigan works for Mesirow Insurance Services Inc., whose clients include CMSA and the two new, state-approved Concept schools…
  • Madigan has taken four trips in the past four years to Turkey as the guest of the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation — whose honorary president is Gulen — and the Chicago Turkish American Chamber of Commerce, according to disclosure reports the speaker has filed.
  • State records show Madigan’s visits were among 32 trips lawmakers took to Turkey from 2008 through 2012. The speaker and members of his House Democratic caucus took 29 of those trips, which they described as “educational missions.
  • Turkey was the destination of 74 percent of all foreign trips Illinois legislators reported receiving as gifts during the five-year period.

And why did the state charter commission choose to overrule CPS on these two schools? The Sun-Times suggests a couple of reasons:

  • More than half of the state charter commission’s budget has come from private contributions, Nowaczewski said. That includes $200,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, linked to the family of the founders of Wal-Mart, and $115,000 from the Joyce Foundation in Chicago. The groups are major financial backers of charter schools.
  • Glen Barton, retired chairman and chief executive of Caterpillar Inc., was among the commission members who voted yes. Barton is president of the board of a Peoria school that’s managed by Concept, but commission officials decided before the vote that Barton’s ties to Concept didn’t prevent him from voting on the plans.

The state law that formed the state body mandates that all members must support charter schools. State Representative Linda Chapa La Via has introduced legislation, HB3754, to shut down the commission.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.