Five Things to Know About Harmony Schools Based on Documentary Killing Ed

Mark Hall's documentary, Killing Ed looks at what's going on behind the scenes with Harmony Public Schools, based in Houston.EXPAND
Mark Hall's documentary, Killing Ed looks at what's going on behind the scenes with Harmony Public Schools, based in Houston.
Still from Mark Hall

The film "Killing Ed" dives into the workings of the Harmony charter schools, started by adherents of Fetullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who may or may not have been the motor behind the failed coup in Turkey that erupted in July.

The publicly funded charter schools are thought to be operated by people, usually Turks, with ties to the Gulen movement. The top schools in the system are the Harmony schools in Texas. These schools have received millions of dollars in grants and funding from the state and federal government which the school system pays off by regularly reporting high test scores, but critics say the schools are too closely tied to the Gulen movement. Here are five interesting things we learned from talking with the documentary director, Mark Hall:

5. The most interesting part of "Killing Ed" happened after the movie was shot. A few months after the documentary "Killing Ed" premiered, the film — which is focused on the controversy surrounding a network of charter schools with ties to adherents of a Turkish Islamic cleric — abruptly took on a more international flavor when an attempted coup erupted in Turkey and was subsequently blamed on the Islamist cleric, Fetullah Gulen, a man whose supporters have started more than 100 charter schools in the United States.

Hall, a lawyer turned filmmaker from Houston, had been working on the film since 2011. He had been struggling to get his film screened in Texas, but suddenly lawyers representing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan approached Hall, he says, interested in seeing his film, which criticizes Harmony schools, a charter school network based in Houston. 

"They invited me to Washington D.C., they wanted to put me up in the Four Seasons, buy me dinner, but I was finalizing the film and I'm not interested in getting involved in that stuff," Hall says now. "I financed this film myself so that I could show exactly what I found out about this. I didn't work all this time for the message to be slanted by other agendas."

4. Hall believed in the film enough to back it with his own money. Hall got interested in the Gulen movement in 2006 and started working on the documentary in earnest in 2011. Over the course of five years he interviewed 44 people and shot more than 150 hours of raw footage. He sold a software patent he was holding to finance the film, which cost more than $400,000. This worked out because it left Hall able to say he’d come to his conclusions independently and he wasn’t indebted to any side on this issue.

That ended up being a smart choice, because while Harmony schools and the Gulen movement were not such a big deal in February when the film first premiered – people have been protesting Harmony charter schools for a while now – the film abruptly became more relevant after an attempted coup in July in Turkey. Erdogan ultimately wrested control of the country back into his hands, and then promptly blamed Gulen for the uprising.

3. It's the least shocking thing in the world that Erdogan blamed Gulen for the coup. Considering the backstory of these two it’s not exactly surprising Erdogan went this route. Gulen is regarded by his followers as a spiritual leader and has been called the second most powerful man in Turkey, according to the BBC. Gulen gained a following by maintaining that young Turks needed to focus on education to help them find their way. His supporters are believed to have ended up in key positions in various institutions in Turkey. When Erdogan was looking to pull Turkey's military from power more than a decade ago, he looked to Gulen and his followers for allies.

The pair worked together to get the military out of the government. Once they'd pulled that off and Erdogan had control though, the pair quickly began to splinter. "They have more in common than they have different from each other, so it makes sense that they turned against each other once the need to fight another force was gone," Hall says. 

2. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ended his interview, shall we say, abruptly. Patrick pops up again and again throughout the documentary talking about charter schools in careful sounding terms. Why? Well, because Patrick has long been a charter school supporter. In 2013, when he was still in the Texas Senate, he filed a bill for school choice that read like a "wish list" for charter schools, and Patrick has remained behind the charter school movement.

It took a while, but he eventually agreed to talk with Hall, Hall says. Still, Patrick apparently didn't like the way the conversation went. Before the interview was formally finished Patrick decided he was done. "He just got up and left and said it was over," Hall says.

1. By the basic standards Harmony schools do, in fact, do pretty well. The Harmony charter schools get a lot of criticism for their ties to the Gulen movement, but people get excited about the schools because of the emphasis on math and science. And some say that the group does teach these subjects well, according to the Texas Tribune and other publications. And the schools have only grown in influence and popularity, even while right leaning groups have accused the schools of being "madrassas." According to the documentary, the group runs more than 150 schools in the United States, pulling in more than $500 million in revenue enrolling about 60,000 students annually.

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