Dove Academy
The sign outside Dove Academy as seen Thursday in Oklahoma City. (William W. Savage III)

Oklahoma is now paying the price for a decade of efforts to shrink government to the point where it could be drowned in a bathtub.

In our notoriously “red” state, it is no surprise that the fingerprints of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are all over our disastrous policies. We should not forget, however, that liberal and neoliberal think tanks have been equally destructive in terms of education policy.

For instance, the corporate-reform Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has gained a foothold in Tulsa, and its “portfolio strategy” seems to be the model that inspired Oklahoma City’s dangerous flirtation with the mass charterization of neighborhood schools.

The CRPE not only seeks to cripple teachers’ unions and local school boards, but it also wants to hamstring the state’s education departments. While its campaigns to privatize local school systems are better known, the CRPE would undermine the state’s regulatory power. It would stop states from setting class-size requirements and staffing ratios and prohibit the state from establishing local funding-distribution formulas. The CRPE would even prohibit the state from offering professional development trainings for teachers.

Dove Academy’s lease issues

I have intentionally begun this post with a wonky review of policy before addressing this blockbuster education headline from State audit questions charter schools site lease payments.

Such a headline alone is not shocking, but, because the charters — Dove Academy schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa — are a part of the controversial Gülen chain, educators who have followed a decade of revelations about that charter-management organization will be hungry to learn more.

Reporter Randy Ellis broke the story:

The Sky Foundation, which manages Dove Charter Schools, has collected about $3.182 million more in lease payments for use of the Dove Science Academy-OKC school site than it paid to originally purchase the property, auditors said.

“We could find no legitimate purpose for the continued charging of lease payments above and beyond the purchase price of the facility,” auditors said.

Over a two year period — from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2014 — the foundation also collected $1,192,442 more in public fund lease payments from the Dove Charter Schools than the foundation paid to lease those other schools, auditors found.

The auditors also found “an apparent violation of both the school’s charter and … the Oklahoma Constitution” when the Sky Foundation paid $175,000 to a Houston charter school system to sponsor a science fair competition that no Dove students attended.

School foundations normally provide financial assistance to schools, but the Sky Foundation operated in the opposite way. Auditors said, “We did not find any evidence of Sky soliciting funds on behalf of the schools or donating funds to the schools. … It appears the schools were supporting Sky instead of Sky supporting the schools.”

Part of a national battle

I hope this introduction to the issue is boring and complicated enough to keep any sort of xenophobia from slipping into the rest of the story. I have intentionally buried the lede in an effort to reduce the chance that the Dove/Gülen/Sky Foundation story provides aid and comfort to anti-Muslim bigotry.

In reality, this is part of a national education story, where Oklahoma City serves as just one of the battlegrounds. As Atlantic Magazine’s Scott Beauchamp explains, Dove Academy is a part of a larger story:

It reads like something out of a John Le Carre novel: The charismatic Sunni imam Fethullah Gülen, leader of a politically powerful Turkish religious movement likened by The Guardian to an “Islamic Opus Dei,” occasionally webcasts sermons from self-imposed exile in the Poconos while his organization quickly grows to head the largest chain of charter schools in America. It might sound quite foreboding — and it should, but not for the reasons you might think.

Here’s the narrative that applies to Oklahoma and our schools.

As Diane Ravitch, 60 Minutes, blogger Sharon Higgins, Beauchamp and other investigative journalists and education writers have documented, this is a scandal that is linked to the efforts of ALEC, the New York Charter School Association and other neoliberal groups to free schools from government regulations.

As early as 2009, Ravitch wrote of the ALEC effort in North Carolina to create a system where “charters would not be required to hire certified teachers. Charter school staff would not be required to pass criminal background checks. The proposed law would not require any checks for conflicts of interest—not for commission members or for the charter schools.”

The Atlantic’s Beauchamp agrees: “In other words, it isn’t the Gülen movement that makes Gülen charter schools so secretive. It’s the charter school movement itself.”

The Atlantic journalist explains that “these schools might be suspect for reasons that are completely unrelated to Islamic doctrine.” They have been involved in irregularities in several states, including Ohio. He reviews the controversies in Utah, Texas and New York before concluding with a situation in the Buckeye State:

I contacted Matthew Blair, and he told me that the problems with the Gülen schools were merely symptomatic of a larger problem within the state’s education system. “The charter school system in Ohio is broken beyond repair,” he wrote in an email. “As it is, charter schools operate in a lawless frontier. Regulations are few and far between. Those that exist are consistently and consciously overlooked.”

The FBI raided more than 19 Gülen-operated academies in Ohio and two other states. Their warrant allowed them to search for information involving the E-rate program — a federal program that, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, “pays for schools to expand telecommunications and Internet access.”

The FBI had previously raided a New Orleans charter school. This is significant because that city’s Recovery School District is the model for the CRPE’s portfolio strategy for mass charterization of public schools. The OKCPS charter plan seems to be the latest effort to impose such a portfolio model on an unsuspecting school system.

That brings us back to the reason for Oklahoma’s audit of Dove Academy charters. Gary Jones ordered the audit at the request of the Department of Education. In other words, we should think twice before stripping regulatory power from education departments.

It also provides an opportunity to remember that charges do not equal conviction. Moreover, under no circumstances should guilt by association be applied to local advocates of the Oklahoma City plan to scale up charters.

But it is relevant in one crucial way: Supporters of the OKCPS mass charterization plan voice confidence that the district can require charters to stick to their promises to accept all children in the neighborhoods that they serve and not push out special education students and kids who are more difficult to serve.

The Dove Academy and Gülen charter story should give them pause and a chance to rethink their ability to hold local charters and national charter chains accountable.