Judd Matheny, chairman of the Government Operations Committee in the Tennessee House of Representatives, has concerns about anti-American ideas percolating into taxpayer-funded schools.
In the stated interest of addressing that potentiality, the Republican from Tullahoma sponsored successful legislation in 2012 giving local school boards the power to limit the number of foreign teachers working in Tennessee charter schools.
The legislation was presented to Matheny by the Tennessee chapter of the Eagle Forum, a socially conservative lobbying group. At the time, the Eagle Forum was raising the alarm in opposition to the work of a Turkish Muslim Cleric named Fethullah Gülen, whose organization runs charter schools in multiple countries, including several in the American Southeast.
Now, as fate would have it, a group associated with Gülen is footing the tab for a troupe of Tennessee lawmakers to embark upon an all-expense-paid expedition to Turkey. The purpose of the journey is to foster economic ties between the Volunteer State and the predominantly Islamic transcontinental republic.
According to a recent report from News Channel 5’s Phil Williams, lawmakers planning to attend the 12-day junket include Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville; Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis; Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis; Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis; Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis; and Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Mt. Juliet.
While Matheny says he is still uncomfortable with foreign influence in Tennessee schools, including from Gülen, he appears to be giving his fellow lawmakers the benefit of the doubt.
Asked recently about his legislation in relation to the upcoming Turkey trip, Matheny told TNReport he believes “some of the Gülen schools…have brought in more foreign teachers than we would like to see in Tennessee.”
“I am very concerned about the proliferation of charter schools that are of non-United States origin and perhaps teach things that are contrary to our constitution here within our borders,” Metheny continued.
But Matheny also said that he’s not overly concerned about his colleagues being influenced by a free getaway.
“I’ve not talked personally with very many legislators that are going. Those that I have talked to seem to be in the frame of mind that they want to do the proper due diligence on both sides,” he said. “They also understand that those trips are not totally focused on charter schools.”
Matheny said that he had been invited on a past trip put on by the same group and declined the offer, but he was quick not to appear hostile.
“Turkey is a great ally, it’s not a country that we want to snub. It’s not a country that we don’t want to foster great relationships with,” he said. “I’m more worried about what’s happening domestically and what’s happening to our children. We want to make sure they are solid Americans.”
State Sen. Bill Ketron, who sponsored Matheny’s bill in the upper chamber, expressed similar sentiments, telling TNReport:
“I do not have a problem with it. It is important that we have dialogue with decision makers abroad. This is a cultural exchange and educational trip. I have confidence that my colleagues will use good judgement as far as any potential effect on issues here in Tennessee.”
Bobbie Patray, state president of the Tennessee Eagle Forum declined to comment on the upcoming trip, saying only that TNReport should talk to the lawmakers who are attending.