By Sharon Higgins
The largest charter school network in the United States is operated by people in and associated with the Gulen Movement (GM), a secretive and controversial Turkish religious sect. With 135 schools enrolling more than 45,000 students, this network is substantially larger than KIPP, the well-known charter management organization with only 109 schools. A lack of awareness about this situation persists despite it being addressed in a national paper and in articles about Gulen charter schools in Utah (also here), Arizona, (also here), Illinois, Tennessee, Pennsylvania (also here), Indiana, Oklahoma (and here), Texas (also here), Arkansas, Louisiana (also here), New Jersey, Georgia, and North Carolina. It was also reported that the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education are investigating practices at these schools.
The concerns raised about the charter schools in the GM network have related to questionable admissions practices; the channeling of school funds to close associates; abuse of contractors; participation in biased, GM-created competitions; incidents of bribing; using the schools to generate political connections; science fair projects being done by teachers; unfair hiring and termination practices; and more. Still, authorizers continue to approve charter applications, ill-informed parents continue to use them, and taxpayers keep funding the schools – all without much discussion.
The Gulen Movement originated in Turkey in the late 1960s and has become increasingly powerful. Its members are followers of Fethullah Gulen (b. 1941) a self-exiled Turkish preacher who has been living on a secluded compound in rural Pennsylvania since 1998. Members call themselves hizmet, meaning “volunteer services” movement. The GM conducts four primary activities around the world: a media empire, business organizations, an enormous number of Turkish culture-promoting and interfaith dialog organizations, and a network of schools in over 100 countries, a large portion of which are U.S. charter schools.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the GM began to establish schools outside of Turkey, first in the newly established republics of Central Asia and then beyond. One expert noted that the “...worldwide extent of Fethullah Gulen’s educational network testifies to the internationalist, even imperialist, nature of the movement.” Last year an analyst viewed the raison d'être for the schools “spreading across the globe” in this way: “Students will learn how to speak Turkish, the national anthem, how to be the 'right kind of Muslim', etc. In essence, it buys [the GM] loyalty.”
The first Gulen charter school was opened in 1999. U.S. officials have known about the movement’s involvement in charter schools since at least 2006 when our Istanbul consulate noticed that a large number of Turkish men, suspected to be GM-affiliated, were seeking visas to work at charter schools. A company specializing in geopolitical analysis reported in 2010 that the GM was running “...more than 90 charter public schools in at least 20 states.”
Board members of Gulen charter schools are primarily Turkish or Turkic and often can be tied to other Gulenist organizations. GM schools around the world emphasize math, science, and technology, and always provide Turkish cultural instruction, as these are the subjects favored by Fethullah Gulen. Turkish or Turkic individuals, almost all male, are imported (referred to as “international” teachers) to teach those subjects and serve as school administrators. They sometimes transfer to other schools, but only those within the movement’s network. Around the world, local teachers are usually hired for elementary grades and the non-Gulen favored subjects. The charter schools have been criticized for importing so many teachers, but defend their practice by claiming that they are unable to find qualified Americans.
Although there is little awareness in the United States about the GM’s charter schools, major daily Turkish newspapers have acknowledged their existence for some time. Readers of Milliyet were informed in 2010 that the Walton Family Foundation had given $1 million to Gulen’s charter schools in California (translation here). And in 2009, readers of Sabah were presented with an account of GM insiders discussing how the U.S. charter schools serve the movement’s goals: “...through education, we can teach tens of thousands of people the Turkish language and our national anthem, introduce them to our culture and win them over. And this is what the Gulen Movement is striving for.” GM-associated news agencies periodically feature reports about Gulen charter school students participating in movement-sponsored cultural events (e.g. here, here, and here).
School operators have been asked if their schools are tied to the Gulen Movement. The responses have always been ambiguous (also here, here, and here) or flat denials (also here, here, and here). Strategic ambiguity and being secretive are noted GM operational styles.
The movement’s secretive nature has been troubling to outsiders, and even “mindboggling” to some who know them well. As one expert stated, “... [the Gulen Movement’s] structure, ambitions, and size remain opaque, making assessment of its impact and power difficult...,” and added, “Fethullahci are often loath to declare themselves openly as such.” Another noted, “...some [Fethullah Gulen Community] members publicly deny affinity or membership with the movement.” And a Turkish observer remarked, “No society would tolerate this big of an organization being this untransparent.” When the GM has been exposed involuntarily or criticized, it has been known to respond with evasive measures or defensive attacks.
Because of our charter school system, the United States is the only country where the Gulen Movement has been able to establish schools which are fully funded with public money. In other countries the movement’s schools are private, supported with tuition and himmet. A researcher explained that himmet is a religious donation collected from members who are assured “...that it goes to a ‘faithful’ cause (e.g., to pay for a student's scholarship, to provide start-up capital for a new school, to send a group of influential Americans on a two-week trip to Turkey, to sponsor an ‘academic’ conference devoted to Fethullah Gulen, etc).”
Gulen charter schools regularly take students to Turkey. The movement’s interfaith dialog and Turkish culture-promoting organizations also provide Turkey trips to academics, journalists, politicians and other public officials (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here). Tours include sightseeing as well as visits to GM-affiliated institutions (news outlets, schools, etc.).
A special feature of these guided “cultural immersion” trips is at least one visit to the home of a Turkish family, with up to three different home visits within nine days. A GM insider once explained that hosting visitors is a way for members to contribute to the cause. It is extremely likely that American travelers don’t realize that their experience in Turkey has been carefully designed to be a concentrated and sustained exposure to the social and political views of one religious group. It’s also likely that they do not understand exactly why their trips were made to be so inexpensive, or even free.
Gulen’s official website contains many articles about his teachings and opinions, including those on education and secrecy. The movement portrays itself as a promoter of dialogue, tolerance, and understanding, but it is intensely controversial in Turkey. Controversies include the movement’s involvement with creationism and other issues connected to its conservative religious agenda, claims about framing political opponents, intimidating the press, infiltrating police and military forces, and being connected to the arrest of prominent journalists (also here).
Concerns about this group have arisen in other countries, too, especially about their schools being used to recruit members, and spread Turkish culture and fundamentalist religious ideas (e.g. here, here, and here).
Although the topic is extremely complicated and sensitive, there are good reasons for Americans to learn about the Gulen Movement and its involvement with so many charter schools. That, and the time to insist that U.S. public officials address this situation, has most definitely arrived.
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