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.
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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