Parents Across America
Apr 1, 2012 No Comments ›› leoniehaimson
By Sharon Higgins, founding member of Parents Across America
Note: This is an expanded version of a guest post published in The Washington Post under Valerie Strauss’s column, The Answer Sheet, on March 27, 2012.
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 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), Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma (and here), Texas (also here), Arkansas, Louisiana (also here), New Jersey, Georgia, and North Carolina.
It has also been reported that the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education are investigating hiring practices at these schools, and the practice of replacing certified American teachers with uncertified Turkish teachers, who often speak limited English and are paid higher salaries, through the use of visas that are supposed to be reserved for workers in shortage areas.
Other concerns that have raised about their charter schools relate 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.
The NY Times this year focused on the way in which Texas Gulen charters have funneled funds to a network of Turkish construction companies. A class-action lawsuit is also being considered. Despite all of this, authorizers continue to approve charter applications, parents continue to send their children to 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 lived on a secluded compound in rural Pennsylvania since 1998. Members of the GM 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 US 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.”
The first Gulen charter school was opened in 1999. US 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 subjects favored by Fethullah Gulen. Turkish or Turkic individuals, almost all male, are imported (referred to as “international” teachers) to teach these 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 $1M to Gulen’s charter schools in California (translation here). The Gates Foundation has given millions in funding to the chain as well.
And in 2009, readers of Sabah were presented with an account of GM insiders discussing how the US 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).
As recently revealed by WikiLeaks, last year an analyst with the “global intelligence” company Stratfor who met with various Gulenists in Turkey in 2010, sent emails home about his discussions and findings. One message discussed how one of these Gulenists claimed that the organization had managed to gain influence through the “penetration of military …He gave an example of the Gulen school influence — he met with the Algerian ambassador – trained in a Gulen school, spoke fluent Turkish, extremely friendly to the Turkish government. A very well-oiled system.”
The Gulenists discussed their goals for their schools:
We also discussed the Gulen schools that are spreading across the globe, expanding Turkish influence. Of course these are the schools with teh best resources, facilities. Students will learn how to speak Turkish, the national anthem, how to be the ‘right kind of Muslim’, etc. In essence, it buys them loyalty. We are still working on getting a complete database of Gulenist schools. They claim that have more than 2,000 in 200 countries so far.Nevertheless, when school operators have been asked if their schools are tied to the Gulen Movement, the responses have been either flat denials (also here, here, and here) or highly ambiguous (also here, here, and here). One newspaper reporter explained that strategic ambiguity was a GM style.
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 (e.g. see the comments that appeared under the Washington Post piece).
Because of our charter school system, the US 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.
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 the fact of the matter is that the GM is intensely controversial in Turkey. As a well-respected journalist recently wrote, “[Gulen] is reviled and feared by much of Turkey’s population.”
Controversies include the GM’s involvement with creationism, restriction of women’s rights ,and other issues connected to its conservative religious agenda, to claims about framing political opponents, intimidating the press, infiltrating police and military forces, and the arrest of several prominent journalists in Turkey last year (also here).
As a reporter for the Lebanon Star wrote, “Celebrated for their investigative work, at the time of their arrests the journalists were investigating a shadowy Islamic group known as the Gulen Movement, founded in the 1960s by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who left Turkey for the United States in 1998.” Prior to his arrest, one of the journalists had completed a book called “The Imam’s Army,” which detailed allegations of how the movement sought to cover up its infiltration of the police force during an internal investigation.
Concerns about this group have arisen in other countries about their schools being used to recruit members, and spread Turkish culture and fundamentalist religious ideas (e.g. in the Republic of Georgia here, Central Asia here, and in the EU here).
There has been wide speculation on what the Gulen Movement really wants (e.g. here and here) and this particular topic is in need of serious research and discussion. One expert suggested: “The movement, which is rooted in selective vision of the glorious Ottoman past, has its own imperial vision of turning Turkey into a global power.”
Although the topic is a sensitive one, there are good reasons for education officials and the public at large to learn more about the Gulen Movement and take a good look at how taxpayer funds are being used to fuel the rapid expansion of its charter school network.