120 American Charter Schools and One Secretive Turkish Cleric

This comes across in the latest news story related to the Gülen schools: an FBI raid last month on the headquarters of over 19 Gülen-operated Horizon Science Academies in Midwest. According to search warrants obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, federal authorities were interested in gathering general financial documents and records of communication. The warrant specifically mentions something called the E-rate program—a federal program that, according to the Sun-Times, “pays for schools to expand telecommunications and Internet access.” A handful of the Gülen-affiliated contractors assisting the schools were receiving money from this federal fund. It’s difficult speculate what this could all mean, as all documents pertaining to the investigation, save the warrants themselves, have been sealed from the public.

Meanwhile, the Ohio State Board of Education has launched its own probe of the nearly 20 Gülen-associated charter schools in its state. As part of the investigation,  four former teachers from Horizon Academy (the particular name of the Gülen charter school chain in Ohio) gave testimony. The teachers mentioned issues as disturbing as cheating on state tests, unsafe building conditions, overcrowding, and even sexual misconduct. One of the teachers, Matthew Blair, had previously tried to contact the state’s Department of Education in order to file complaints, but hadn’t heard back from officials. Board president Debe Terhar assured the teachers, “Your concerns have not fallen on deaf ears. We hear you, and we will move forward with making sure this thing is investigated.”

I contacted Matthew Blair, and he told me that the problems with the Gülen schools were merely symptomatic of a larger problem within the state’s education system. “The charter school system in Ohio is broken beyond repair,” he wrote in an email. “As it is, charter schools operate in a lawless frontier. Regulations are few and far between. Those that exist are consistently and consciously overlooked.”

The Gülen schools, he wrote, “are an excellent example” of this problem: “A Gülen organization controls the real estate companies that own their schools. They charge rent to their own schools and tax-payers foot the bill. They refuse to answer public records requests, falsify attendance records, and cheat on standardized tests. Yet, Ohio continues to grant them charters to operate.” He added, “It doesn't hurt that the Gülen organization is politically active and treats state politicians to lavish trips abroad.” But overall, he said, “this Wild West atmosphere of few regulations creates incestuous relationships among politicians, vendors, and schools. Charter schools like Gülen's give generously. In return, they are allowed to keep their saloons open and serve whatever they want. The only way to save the charter school system is to start over again by using the model of effective public schools.” 

The Gülen movement insists that the accusations against are the result of gross exaggeration or outright falsehood. Websites like Gulenschools.org and hizmetchronicle.com defend Gülen charter schools from accusations of impropriety: aggregating positive news about the schools, restating their mission in magnanimous language, and distancing Fethullah Gülen himself from any of the legal proceedings or investigations. One particular article quotes Gülen’s attorney, who responds to (more) FBI raids on Gülen schools in Louisiana by reminding readers that Gülen himself “is not the founder, shareholder, or administrator of any school.”

But the problem with Gülen schools isn’t that they’re connected to a particular religious movement (although some might object to public funds making their way to any religious institution). The problem is that they participate in a system that gives every incentive to keep their financial dealings under wraps. Charter schools were designed to provide a certain amount of autonomy, and many schools have successfully walked the line between public responsibility and private innovation. But there are vulnerabilities built into the system, and one is a reduced oversight that enables schools to move vast amounts of public funds into private hands. The Gülen movement, with its foreign origins and mysterious leader, may make for a particular intriguing story. But as the saying goes, “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.”

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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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