Ankara to Anaheim: Progressive Council Candidate Allied With Repressive Turkish Regime

Why is an ambitious Anaheim council candidate part of a campaign of harassment being against the operator of high-achieving public charter schools that is being waged and funded by the neo-Islamist regime of Turkish President Recep Erdogan? It’s a story that sheds light on the convoluted nature of anti-charter school politics.

Jose F. Moreno is chairman of the Chicano Studies Department at Cal State University, Long Beach. He served three terms on the Anaheim City School District Board of Education and ran unsuccessfully for Anaheim City Council in 2014. He espouses the politics of wealth redistribution and racial grievance. He was lead plaintiff in the ACLU law-suit that eventually led to the adoption of by-district council elections in Anaheim and is seeking the newly-created District 3 council seat.

Non-profit Magnolia Public Schools operates 11 public charter schools in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and San Francisco counties. Its academies emphasize a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum in its schools – such as Magnolia Science Academy in Santa Ana. Its CEO is a former president of the LA Unified School District Board of Education.

Recep Erdogan is the authoritarian, Islamist president of the Turkish Republic. For the past 13 years, Erdogan has been systematically rolling back the Kemalist revolution of the early 1920s to modernize Turkey as a secular, Western-oriented state and replace it with an Islamist system ruled by him.

What do these three have in common? The first is harassing the second on behalf of the third.

Some background is necessary to better understand this bizarre scenario of intertwined enmities. In August 2015, the Turkish government hired Amsterdam & Partners LLP on a $50,000 monthly retainer to engages in political activities in the United States on its behalf – or as Amsterdam & Partners put it, “investigate Magnolia and certain other charter schools in the United States for….their suspected ties…to Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive Turkish imam who resides in Saylorsville, Pennsylvania.”

Moreno Signs Complaint Funded By Islamist Leader of Turkey
A few months later, on February 26 of this year, the Amsterdam law firm filed a complaint with the California Department of Education, signed by Moreno and Tina Andres, a Santa Ana Unified School District special education teacher and CTA shop steward.

Tina Andres

The complaint claims a 2015 state audit of Magnolia Public Schools uncovered “widespread accounting impropriety” and “raised numerous other important questions about Magnolia’s financial practices including a connection to the global organization of charter schools and businesses headed by Turkish national Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive Islamic cleric who resides in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.” The complaint also claims the audit found Magnolia Public Schools guilty of violating numerous state and federal laws.

It concludes with a demand for a “full investigation of all operating Magnolia charter schools and Magnolia’s corporate office” by the state Department of Education.

Magnolia Public Schools CEO: Complaint Is “Ridiculous”
Magnolia Public Schools CEO Dr. Caprice Young says the accusations from the Amsterdam firm, Moreno and Andres are ridiculous. She points out that after looking into Magnolia for nearly a year, not only did the California State Auditor not find any wrongdoing, but praised the charter organizations success.

Indeed, a review of the audit report largely backs up Young and shows the Amsterdam-Moreno-Andres complaint to be composed of guilty-by-association, hyperbole and hot air.

Contrary to allegations of out-of-control finances, the State Auditor concluded Magnolia has “improved [its] financial position, but should strengthen some of their financial controls.”

“Our review confirmed that some of the academies were insolvent at points during the past three fiscal years, partly because of state funding delays. To help financially struggling academies, the Foundation facilitated loans between academies and did not charge some academies its full management fee. Our review found that the academies that loaned funds were not negatively impacted by this practice and that these loans served a useful purpose by enabling struggling academies to continue to serve their students. As of July 2014 the Foundation and academies had repaid all but one loan—from the Foundation to one of its academies most in need of financial assistance—and all of the academies were solvent under the three financial measures we applied.”

“Even so, the Foundation must strengthen its financial and management processes.”

The Moreno-Andres complaint asserts a 2014 audit by the Los Angeles Unified School District – home to eight of Magnolia’s 11 academies — validates its claims. Following that audit, the LAUSD rescinded conditional approval of two Magnolia charter schools.

The State Auditor, however,  found fault with the LAUSD’s conduct of the audit:

“We found that LAUSD may have acted prematurely as its decision was based on a summary of draft findings that did not provide key context about the financial situations of those academies and it did not provide sufficient time for the Foundation to respond to its criticisms. To ensure its academies remained open, the Foundation took legal action against LAUSD. In March 2015 a settlement agreement between the two parties resolved this litigation and resulted in the renewal of the academies’ charters.”

Standard procedure is to afford the audit subject the opportunity to review and comment on the draft, the better to arrive at an accurate final report and recommendations for improvement. LAUSD skipped that critical step, producing a flawed audit that served as the basis for the district wrongfully nixing renewal of two Magnolia charter academies.

The report states that the 11 academies operated by Magnolia Public Schools “perform well academically” – noting they place in the high end of the API score spectrum and “generally had higher APIs than their authorizing entities.”

Furthermore, according to the State Auditor, Magnolia has either fully implemented or is in the process of implementing the audit’s recommendations.

Finally – contrary to the claim made in the Amsterdam-Moreno-Andres complaint, the State Auditor report has nothing to say about the alleged ties between the Gulen movement and Magnolia Charter Schools.

Blowing Smoke In Hopes Of Starting A Fire
It’s clear from a reasonable reading of the State Auditor’s report that the allegations advanced by complainants Jose Moreno and Tina Andres are unreasonable and lack substantiating evidence. The intent behind the complaint seems to be that by blowing enough smoke, people will believe there really is a fire.

Keep in mind this offensive against Magnolia Public Schools is being financed by the regime of Recep Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics, first as prime minister and now as president, since 2003. During that time Erdogan has set about systematically dismantling the secular constitutional order established by Kemal Ataturk by its supporting institutions: the independence of the judiciary and the military and freedom of the press.  His goal, as the Wall Street Journal recently put it, is to realize “his dream of ruling as a Turkish Sultan.”

Erdogan and his followers employ anti-Semitic rhetoric pronouncements and commentary: for example, blaming “the Jews” for a mining accident in which 300 people were killed.  Erdogan placed second in 2013 on the Simon Weisenthal Center’s list of Top Ten Anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slurs; he was edged out by the Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Erdogan accused Israel of “tyranny” and of pursuing genocide against the Palestinians – likening them to Hitler and promised Israel would “drown in blood.”

Turkish Presidential Vendetta Against A Former Ally
The Erdogan government is funding complaints like the one signed by Moreno and Andres as part of a vendetta against Fethullah Gulen, a 74-year old former imam and former political ally who founded the eponymous Gulen Movement, a brand of Islam described as a peaceful, endorsing dialogue among the Abrahamic religions, eschewing violence and supporting multi-party democracy in Turkey. Some call it anIslamist supremacist cult.”

Either way, Mr. Gulen is controversial and has enemies – most notably Turkish President Recep Erdogan. The two men were allies until 2013, when Erdogan accused Gulen of trying to undermine him politically. The Erdogan government moved to shut-down Gulen-operated schools in Turkey, branded the Gulen Movement as a “terrorist organization” and went after organizations and individuals it suspected of being “linked” to Gulen. In March of this year, Erdogan used the pretext of a claimed Gulen “link” to seize Turkey’s highest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, as part of a crackdown on the county’s free, independent press.

Gulen now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The complaint signed by Moreno and Andres repeatedly claims Magnolia Public Schools is closely tied to the Gulen Movement and funneling tax dollars to Fethullah Gulen. However, they provide no evidence to substantiate their charges.

Dr. Caprice Young

When asked about the Gulen accusations, Dr. Young denies Magnolia Public Schools is connected with Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement. She readily acknowledges a number of Magnolia Public Schools employees believe in the principles of the Gulen Movement, but dismissed the allegations her non-profit corporation and its academies are an alien fifth column preying upon unsuspecting parents and children.

“Freedom of religion is a core value in the US,” said Dr. Young. “My staff has that right, but no one brings his or her religion into the workplace.”

Absent such evidence, Moreno’s and Andres’ charges boil down to calling for a state investigation Magnolia Public Schools in large part due to the religious and political beliefs of some of its staff. If these were Mormons or Catholics or evangelical Christians who believed teaching in charter schools was the best way to realizing the vocation to which their faith called them – would Moreno and Andres be calling for an investigation? Freedom of religion and thought are guaranteed by the Constitution for citizens and legal residents alike. It’s disturbing to Moreno and Andres exploit the negative political climate for Islam and the “otherness” of ethnic Turks in pursuit of a narrow political agenda.

The California Department of Education has no obligation to investigate the Moreno-Andres complaint, unless they find it has potential merit.

“The CDE has taken no action on this complaint after nearly three months,” said Dr. Young. “That should surprise no one because the complaints are baseless.”

Dr. Young notes that after the complaint was filed, she e-mailed Moreno on February 16 to invite him to observe Magnolia charter academies for himself:

Hi!  I don’t believe you have ever visited a Magnolia Science Academy. Please can we meet? I’m not sure what I have done to personally offend you, but my experience has been that meeting in person is the best way to address concerns.

Caprice Young

Moreno declined in his February 28 reply:

Hi Ms. Young,

Thank you for your email. My apologies for delay in response. These past few weeks have been quite hectic.

I appreciate the offer to meet however the joint complaint filed speaks for itself and am hopeful the CDE will honor the process.

Jose

The nub of the matter is whether Magnolia Public Schools is providing students at its academies with a quality education. By standard objective measures, that is precisely what is happening, and why parents are making the choice to send their children there.

Strange Bedfellows
It seems odd that Jose Moreno and Tina Andres would make common cause with an oppressive, anti-Semitic foreign government’s campaign of harassment against the operator of award-winning charter academies that serve poor and working class children.

The common factor is a common enemy. The Erdogan regime zeroed in on Magnolia Public Schools in the as part of a world-wide campaign targeting anything that might be tinged in any way by Gulen. Morneo and Andres have targeted Magnolia Public Schools because the public education establishment feels threatened by charter schools – especially successful ones.

Andres is an active member of the California Teachers Association; grinding down the charter school movement is a top priority of the powerful union. Andres went so far as to help organize a petition in November 2015 to prevent Teach for America (TFA) volunteers from interning as special education trainees in the LAUSD. TFA recruits recent college graduates and professionals to commit to teaching in public schools in low-income communities for two-years.

Andres and her co-petitioners have a different view of these non-union dues paying idealists:

“TFA is one of the tools that Eli Broad is using to attack our schools and undermine the very fabric of the public school system in Los Angeles (his foundation is a top funder of TFA).”

Moreno readily advertises his anti-charter school views. In a 2014 e-mail to members of the Democratic Party of Orange County seeking their endorsement of his Anaheim City Council bid, Moreno declared:

I am NOT a supporter of the overall Charter School movement which is clearly a veiled effort to undermine education as a public entity. I have always, and continue to be skeptical of corporate-based and networked charters that come into our communities under the auspices of educational equity. It is indeed unfortunate that over the past 20 years our legislature and State Board of Education has established and expanded Charter school laws.

His Facebook page is dotted with posts promoting the anti-charter school “documentary” Killing Ed or linking to negative articles about charter schools. He was a post-screening panelist at a Killing Ed showing organized by the Anaheim Union High School District. A Magnolia Public Schools employee was prevented from attending this showing – even though he had a ticket to the event, which was free and open to the public.

Magnolia Public Schools already operates one charter academy in the Santa Ana Unified School District, where Andres works. Last year, Magnolia submitted applications to operate charter academies in the Anaheim City School District (ACSD), Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD), and Garden Grove Unified School District.   Those applications have been withdrawn in order to obtain more input from parents and staff, according to Ms. Young, and will be re-submitted within the next 60 days.

The intent of the Moreno-Andres complaint is to muddy the waters with negative publicity and give cover to anti-charter school boards like those in ACSD and AHUSD. It is part of the larger anti-Magnolia campaign being funded by the Erdogan regime: this January, the Turkish government sent an Amsterdam & Partners attorney to Fremont Unified School District to urge the school board to reject a MPS charter school application.

As already noted, squashing the charter school movement is a top priority of the teachers union and its progressive allies. Andres is a CTA shop steward; Moreno spent 12 years on the board of education of the notoriously anti-charter Anaheim City School District, which has budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate against a group of working class parents seeking to convert a single elementary school into a charter school.

Puzzling Progressive Opposition
Given whom Magnolia serves, and they success with which it does so, one can’t helping wondering why Magnolia has earned Moreno’s enmity, rather than encomiums. The students at its 11 academies are 80% Latino and African-American,and three-quarters are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches.  Magnolia’s college-prep, STEM-based education is an opportunity for these kids to escape the limited economic opportunities in their communities. Magnolia Public School students graduate college-ready, and two of their high schools have been ranked among the top three percent in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Moreno is a vocal champion of multi-culturalism. Yet in his complaint he objects that studets at Magnolia Public Schools academies “are regularly taken to the Pacifica Institute’s Anatolian Cultures and Food Festival…

Moreno is a strong proponent of immigration and immigrant rights, yet his complaint criticizes Magnolia Public Schools academies for employing immigrants (in this case, they are Turkish rather than Latino).

He routinely spotlights examples of injustice to racial and ethnic minorities in America, yet puts his name to a complaint funded by a government engaged in the bloody oppression of ethnic minorities in Turkey.

Traditional public schools work fine for many students, but a growing number of families want alternatives like charter schools have more freedom and flexibility to pursue excellence. It’s ironic that progressives like Jose Moreno pride themselves on promoting diversity and alternatives to the mainstream – with the stark exception of public education, where protecting the political and financial interests of the public education establishment takes absolute primacy over the best interests of students.

Magnolia Public Schools are actually helping the very people Moreno professes to serve through his politicking. Rather than putting ideology aside in the interests of educational justice, Jose F. Moreno joins an anti-charter school campaign funded by the anti-Semitic, anti-free speech Turkish president who is trying to make himself the Islamist ruler of that country.

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