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Legislature Passes Limits on Foreign Staffers at TN Charter Schools

The Tennessee Legislature has approved a bill limiting the number of non-U.S. citizens any Volunteer State charter school can hire while still maintaining eligibility for public funding.

Senate Bill 3345, which passed in the Tennessee Senate last week and in the House of Representatives on Monday night, would also require charter schools to disclose all their funding sources in addition to capping the number of foreign citizens on staff at 3.5 percent of the total number of the school’s employees.

House proponents of the measure portrayed it as a common-sense effort to increase charter-school transparency and encourage the hiring of American citizens as teachers — preferably Tennesseans.

“It simply puts more accountability in the charter school process,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill’s sponsor. The measure contains an exemption for foreign-language teachers who, if by hiring them, would cause a charter school to break the cap, Matheny added.

The measure passed April 12 in the Senate on an 18-13-1 vote. It cleared the House on a 63-29-1 vote. In both chambers votes were cast mostly along party lines, with Republicans for it and Democrats against.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory suggested during floor debate Monday that the group chiefly responsible for pushing the bill, the Tennessee Eagle Forum, seems concerned more with limiting the influence of Islam than hiring homegrown teachers.

Turner noted that just last week Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the national Eagle Forum, penned an opinion column that sought to raise awareness about the growing influence in America of a “secretive and powerful” Turkish-based Islamic religious sect.

“Charter schools are able to hire and fire teachers, administrators and staff and avoid control by education department bureaucrats and the teachers unions,” wrote Schlafly. “No doubt there are some good charter schools, but loose controls have allowed a very different kind of school to emerge.”

Schlafly, a nationally syndicated conservative political commentator, cited a number of articles in major U.S. newspapers over the past year that have examined the activities of a movement led by a religious leader from Turkey named Fethullah Gülen.

According to a June 2011 New York Times article that Schlafly referenced in her column, Fethullah Gülen is “a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.”

The Times story continued:

The growth of these “Turkish schools,” as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.

Schlafly wrote that the movement “has nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants.”

“Most American taxpayers would be mighty surprised at what their money is financing,” Schlafly concluded.

Matheny acknowledged that indeed the foreigners-in-charter-schools measure came to him through the Tennessee Eagle Forum. He denied, though, that it is targeted at any one group or individual.

“This bill treats everybody equally who would be part of the charter school process, regardless of where they are from, what their religion is — it treats everybody equally,” Matheny said Monday.

Turner, who voted against the bill, suggested Matheny research the Eagle Forum’s views on the matter. “I think they have led you astray on what they asked you to carry on this bill,” Turner said.

A March 27 article in The Tennessean noted that top Democrats in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature filed bills earlier this session similar to the GOP-backed proposal. Senate Bill 2654 and House Bill 2831, sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, sought to prohibit foreign nationals who are not lawful permanent residents of the United States from running or teaching in state-funded charter schools. Those bills stalled in the committee system.

Sen. Finney ultimately voted against SB3345, which was sponsored in the Senate by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron. Rep. Fitzhugh didn’t cast a vote on the measure during the House vote Monday night, according to the Tennessee Legislature’s website, although he is listed as having voted against the measure when it passed out of the House Education Committee April 3.

Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said he doesn’t see a particular need for the bill, that it creates unnecessary hoops for charter schools to jump through.

Often schools with higher percentages of foreign-born teachers are among the highest performing institutions academically, he said.

“The evidence suggests they’re really making positive contributions,” Throckmorton said.