120 American Charter Schools and One Secretive Turkish Cleric

The FBI is investigating a group of educators who are followers of a mysterious Islamic movement. But the problems seem less related to faith than to the oversight of charter schools.
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Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen at his Pennsylvania home in September 2013 (Reuters)

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.

You can be excused if you’ve never heard of Fethullah Gülen or his eponymous movement. He isn’t known for his openness, despite the size of his organization, which is rumored to have between 1 and 8 million adherents. It’s difficult to estimate the depth of its bench, however, without an official roster of membership. Known informally in Turkey as Hizmet, or “the service”, the Gülen movement prides itself on being a pacifist, internationalist, modern, and moderate alternative to more extreme derivations of Sunni Islam. The group does emphasize the importance of interfaith dialogue, education, and a kind of cosmopolitanism. One prominent sociologist described it as “the world’s most global movement.”

Much of the praise for the Gülen movement comes from its emphasis on providing education to children worldwide. In countries like Pakistan, its schools often serve as an alternative to more fundamentalist madrassas. Gülen schools enroll an estimated two million students around the globe, usually with English as the language of instruction, and the tuition is often paid in full by the institution. In Islamic countries, where the Gülen schools aren’t entirely secular: The New York Times reported that in many of the Pakistani schools, “…teachers encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set the example in lifestyle and prayers.” But the focus is still largely on academics. Fethullah Gülen put it in one of his sermons, “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping Allah.”

In Western countries such as the United States, Germany, and France, there isn’t any evidence whatsoever that the nearly 120 Gülen charter schools in America include Islamic indoctrination in their curriculum. The schools are so secular that singling out the Gülen schools as particularly nefarious, simply for being run predominantly by Muslims, smacks of xenophobia.

However, these schools might be suspect for reasons that are completely unrelated to Islamic doctrine. One of their most troubling characteristics is that they don’t have a great track record when it comes to financial and legal transparency. In Utah, a financial probe launched by the Utah Schools Charter Board found the Beehive Science and Technology Academy, a Gülen-run charter school, to be nearly $350,000 in debt. Furthermore, as the Deseret News reported, the school’s administrators seemed to be reserving coveted jobs for their own countrymen and women: “In a time of teacher layoffs, Beehive has recruited a high percentage of teachers from overseas, mainly Turkey.”

Even more unnervingly, the school’s money—public funds from the local community—was being donated to Gülen-affiliated organizations and used to pay the cost of bringing teachers to Utah from Turkey. To illustrate the level of fiscal mismanagement, the school spent about 50 cents to pay the immigration costs of foreign teachers for every dollar that it spent on textbooks. In 2010, after being the first charter school in Utah history to be shuttered, Beehive appealed the decision and was reopened the same year.

There are similar stories from other states. In Texas, where 33 Gülen charter schools receive close to $100 million a year in taxpayer funds, the New York Times reported in 2011 that two schools had given $50 million to Gülen-connected contractors, including the month-old Atlas Texas Construction and Training, even though other contractors had offered lower bids. It was the same thing in Georgia, where Fulton County audited three Gülen schools after allegations that they’d skipped the bidding process altogether and paid nearly half a million dollars to organizations associated with the Gülen movement.

The Gülen movement is known for its secrecy. But when it comes to the Gülen charter schools, the lack of transparency is part of a larger problem that has nothing to do with the Turkish-based organization. Diane Ravitch, education professor at New York University and Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, writes about this larger transparency issue in her latest book, Reign of Error, explaining, “In 2009, New York Charter School Association successfully sued to prevent the state comptroller from auditing the finances of charter schools, even though they receive public funding. The association contended that charter school’s are not government agencies but ‘non-profit educational corporations carrying out a public purpose.’” The New York State Court of Appeals agreed with the organization in a 7 to 0 vote. It took an act of legislation from the state—specifically designed to allow the comptroller to audit charter schools—for this to change.

Ravitch also writes of a similar instance in North Carolina in which the state, urged on by lobbying giant ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), proposed the creation of a special commission, composed entirely of charter school advocates, as a way for charter schools to bypass the oversight of the State Board of Education or the local school boards. Ravitch writes, “The 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.” In other words, it isn’t the Gülen movement that makes Gülen charter schools so secretive. It’s the charter school movement itself.

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Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer. His work has appeared in The BafflerThe Daily Beast, and Bookforum.

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