It’s no secret the liberal think tank ProgressOhio wants to take down the group of Horizon Science Academy charter schools operating around the state.
But this is new: As part of that mission, ProgressOhio got $37,500 from the Turkish government.
It’s a roundabout payment. The Turkish government hired an international law firm to investigate the charter schools. That law firm, the London-based Amsterdam & Partners, in turn, hired ProgressOhio.
This all centers around a group of charter schools in Ohio, including one in Bond Hill, that many claim are associated with a self-exiled Turkish cleric. The schools deny that connection.
ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis acknowledged the payments but said her group’s goal for years has been to scrutinize Horizon schools’ practices. It’s about quality schools, Theis said, not Turkish politics.
“We intentionally stayed out of that,” she said. “What we care about is, ‘Stop wasting money and hurting our kids.’”
Mark Weaver, a spokesman for Concept Schools, the group that oversees the charter schools, said the payment from Turkey further proves that ProgressOhio is unfairly targeting Horizon schools.
“For years, we’ve known that ProgressOhio is bought and paid for by teachers’ unions,” Weaver said. “We now know they’re bought and paid for by an oppressive regime in Turkey.”
How we got here
This story starts with a failed coup in Turkey in mid-July. More than 270 people died.
It involves Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile; a demand from Turkey for Gulen’s extradition; and an investigation into a vast network of charter schools.
The Turkish government says Gulen is to blame for the coup.
So, the Turkish government hired Amsterdam & Partners to investigate Gulen’s worldwide network, which includes Cincinnati's Horizon Science Academy in Bond Hill plus 16 other charter schools throughout the state.
Further complicating the matter is that the so-called Gulen schools do not admit to being Gulen schools. Weaver denied any ties – financial or operational – between the schools and the cleric.
On Oct. 11, Robert Amsterdam, the attorney hired to investigate the schools, released the findings of his investigation. He filed a complaint with Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost and the State Board of Education, alleging that the charter schools are operating a “closed loop” real-estate scam, in which people from the Gulen network are on all sides of each transaction: Taxpayers pay Gulen schools. Gulen schools then pay exorbitant rent to Gulen landlords, and the Gulen network pockets the profit.
Theis, from ProgressOhio, spoke at a press conference announcing those findings. ProgressOhio also covered the news on its website.
A spokesman for the state auditor’s office said that complaint is still under review. There’s no timeline for when, but ultimately, the audit team will either decide to drop the complaint or launch a financial audit, a special audit or an investigation.
The payments to ProgressOhio were disclosed on Amsterdam & Partners' filing with the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That act requires those who represent a foreign power to disclose details about the relationship.
On August 5, August 12 and September 27, ProgressOhio was paid $7,500 each for “Provision of Public and Media Relations services,” according to the filing. On October 14, ProgressOhio received $15,000 for the same.
Amsterdam said he was hired by Turkey a year before the 2016 coup attempt. When he started his investigation into Horizon schools, a colleague referred him to ProgressOhio for help.
Amsterdam said he sees no problem with Turkey hiring him to investigate the schools. “It’s, to me, a sad commentary that a foreign government needed to hire a firm to investigate a company (in the U.S.).”
The FBI was at one point investigating the schools. The Horizon Science Academy in Bond Hill was raided in 2014 after an allegation of improper use of federal technology funding. FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson referred The Enquirer to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for comment on that investigation (Gulen lives in Pennsylvania). A spokesperson for that department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Ohio Department of Education has also investigated Horizon schools, looking into allegations of sex games, test tampering and other potentially criminal misdeeds. But in 2015, ODE reported the majority of the 106 complaints received could not be substantiated.
“These allegations have been proven false over and over again,” Weaver said. “And now, we know they’re being funded by Turkish government money.”
On its latest state report card, Cincinnati’s Horizon Science Academy got straight Fs. Its four-year graduation rate is 46.7 percent. Its five-year grad rate is 78.6 percent. By comparison, Cincinnati Public Schools had a four-year graduation rate of 72.9 percent and a five-year rate of 75.9 percent.
Out of 16 indicators – benchmarks the state sets for test scores – Horizon hit none.
To Theis, that’s what matters. "They are doing a really poor job of educating kids," she said.
Amsterdam called it a "great fraud."
“If you would have told me an organization this corrupt would have this much success in the United States,” he said, pausing, “... it’s a testament to power of political donations.”
But Weaver said that’s just another example of ProgressOhio unfairly targeting charter schools.
The group “cherry picks some schools for criticism,” Weaver said, “while turning a blind eye toward unionized schools.”
USA Today Network reporter Fredreka Schouten contributed to this story.