Who Is Watching? Turkish Cleric, Accused of Motivating Military Coup, Controls Large Network of Charter Schools in the U.S.

The calls were coming from around the country. A call from Springfield, Mass. was followed by a call from New Orleans, followed by a call from Columbus and also a call from Chicago. The callers were contacting my office at the American Federation of Teachers asking about charter schools in their area operated by Turkish men. We didn’t have any good answers.

By now, the scale and ambition of Fethullah Gulen and his followers are in the news daily with the fallout of the apparent coup attempt in Turkey this summer. I'd be lying if I said I knew how to interpret the events in Turkey. However, I am not the least surprised by the direct assertions by Republic of Turkey officials that Gulen—a nearly 80-year-old mullah living in the Poconos since 1997—is behind a large network of charter schools here in the United States. This fact has taken far too long to pierce the headlines, but it has now become a standard paragraph in both international and domestic coverage of the confusing events in Turkey.

In 2009, we were stunned by what we were finding as we ran down charter applications and tax forms for these widely dispersed but seemingly related schools. Teachers at the schools were contacting the union to determine how to proceed with asserting their rights in the face of management practices. (This is part of the challenge charter schools overall pose in public education, as these schools may receive nearly all their revenue from public sources, but their practices more resemble private entities than public schools. The teachers at one of those charter schools, the Chicago Math and Science Academy, ultimately became the subject of a landmark National Labor Relations Board case that found the CMSA was in fact a private employer and not covered by Illinois public sector labor law.)

As we pieced together the origin stories of more than 100 charter schools across the country, we found what can only be described as a public conspiracy. Dozens of Turkish men were forming charter school boards and applying to open schools for approval by city officials or school district administrators or state education department bureaucrats. These charter schools were allied with education management organizations—the private foundations or companies hired to run the daily operations of the schools—that were also run exclusively by Turkish men. The charter applications stated that these schools in part would be staffed by teachers or administrators brought to the United States from Turkey under the H1-B visa program for "specialty occupations." (The cumulative numbers of staff with H1-B visas nationally are difficult to know precisely; in 2014, the Cincinnati Enquirer identified 67 H1-B visa holders out of a total teacher workforce of 541—comprising 12 percent of staff at 17 Concept Schools in Ohio.)

The Turkish individuals who came as H1-B visa teachers then became founding charter board members at subsequent generation charter schools. The historic research showed that starting in 1999, the first Turkish charter schools were approved, and that by 2009, entire charter chains had been created to operate dozens of schools: the Horizon Science Academy chain in Ohio, the Magnolia Science Academy chain in California, the Harmony Science Academy chain in Texas, the Sonoma Science Academy chain in Arizona.

As a labor organizer, I was surprised by the organizational capacity and sheer bravado of the whole charter school enterprise. But then we found the links to Fethullah Gulen in the academic work of Joshua Hendrick, a scholar then at the University of Oregon. And I was simply amazed. Was it really possible that a network of charter schools in the United States was in fact affiliated with the Turkish international missionary organization headed by the exiled Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania?

Was it really possible that no one in the American education administration knew about this network or grasped the implications? A strict interpretation at face value of all of the Gulenist movement's declared intentions means one has to accept its missionary purpose as primary. In the United States, the Gulen movement has successfully employed many hundreds of its adherents inside the charter schools and used public funds to further employ many thousands of other adherents through contracted products or services to the charter schools. 

In retrospect, the pattern exhibited by the group of school founders seems so transparent and yet wholly undeclared. Academics like Joshua Hendrick have described their actions as "strategic ambiguity" in masking their true intentions. Hendrick said after the coup:

"[The Gulen movement’s] organizational culture emerged in a context that demanded strategic ambiguity. While some people are open and proud about their affiliation, others deny it completely. This starts with Fethullah Gulen himself. He is a very ambiguous character, right to his birthdate one cannot get a straight answer from him about anything.

"The movement operates in over 100 countries and over 100 legal spheres, and this model ensures that if something goes wrong in one place, it doesn’t affect everywhere else. It’s a calculated measure. For example, when lots of questions were raised about charter schools linked to Gulen in Texas, you started to see the same answers appearing from institutions in Ohio, Maryland, Alabama with the same script: 'Some people might be influenced by Gulen because they come from Turkey, in the same way as people from the U.S. are influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.'"

This is how it works in the American charter school “sphere”: The Turkish men who applied and vouched for the academic pursuits of the founding board would also be inviting local school district officials or local politicians to Interfaith Dinners as is common with the Gulenist movement activities worldwide. The schools publicized their STEM focus (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) but these courses were often taught by recently arrived Turkish teachers who spoke such heavily accented English many students couldn't comprehend the instructors. The schools invariably offered Turkish language instruction and the most promising students were "volunteered" to participate in language competitions that culminated in national or even international "Turkish Olympiads."

American families were allowing their children to travel around the United States or even to Turkey with Turkish teachers for little or no cost. Local politicians all the way up to representatives and senators were accepting "donated" trips to Turkey hosted by Gulenist officials in the United States and traveling within Gulenist networks of hotels, guest houses, restaurants and institutions. And to start the cycle all over again, those politicians or parents were advocating alongside the Turkish men to open new schools within the charter application process.

Even within the insular charter school industry where public funds regularly become private profit like modern alchemy, the presence of charter operators dominated by recently arrived Turkish men has no precedents. Perhaps the establishment of parochial schools by the Catholic Church in the early 20th century is similar, but those schools were subjected to highly charged constitutional changes in state constitutions (known as Blaine Amendments) that precluded public funds from going to those schools. The legal fights for public funding for religious-based schools recurs regularly around the so-called “voucher” programs around the country.

The franchise-like growth of "unrelated" schools run by Turks “influenced by the teachings of the Iman Gulen” took place in full public view and can easily be compiled from public records or the promotional websites of the Gulen movement. This went on for years in communities all across the country with seemingly few people asking any questions, including state and federal educational regulatory bodies. I can only assume the thinking among the education bureaucrats was if the Turks were taking the financial risk to open the schools, then their motivations must be true and legitimate. Now, in retrospect, we have a deeper insight into their intentions from the accusations coming from their home country.

Over the last few years, many local newspapers or national reporters covered this charter school network and Gulen's role in it as local interest stories. The New York Times in 2011 did a front-page profile of the Harmony Science Academy chain and its sole-source contracting practices with seemingly related Turkish companies. Leslie Stahl on "60 Minutes" did an infamous piece in 2012 in which Stahl stood around sheepishly at the empty seat where Gulen would have sat if she were granted an interview for her segment. And still the Gulen schools continued to apply and receive new charters in nearly all cases.

The Turkish charter school applicants and their supporters were prepared to go after the critical voices who spoke against their applications by raising the apparent ties to the Gulen movement: they attacked the messengers. Anyone who raised the public records and activities and cited the Gulen movement's own declarations linking its worldwide network of private schools to the charter school networks was dismissed as anti-Muslim, xenophobic or unhinged.

After closely watching the pressure mount on the Gulenist schools and their defenders since 2009, I am concerned that these claims of anti-Muslim motivations are intentionally confusing the central issue of public oversight of charter schools. The administration of public education within the bounds of our laws and tradition of separation of church and state is severely tested by the charter school model of the Gulenists—as is equally true if the charter schools or other public institutions were hijacked to surreptitiously serve any criminal conspiracy or sect's missionary goals. The demands for full disclosure and public transparency in the Gulenist schools' operations are the same for charter school mismanagement (as documented even by the comedian John Oliver).

The fact is that all those accusations of "discriminatory motives" made toward the critics are bluster. We know this because the bark of any of the Gulenists with the anti-Muslim dodge has never been followed by any bite in civil actions claiming defamation or libel in American courts.

However, slowly but surely over the last few years, as the pro-public education activists were increasingly vocal of challenging charter schools generally, the critical voices started to gain traction in some communities. The Gulen charter schools in the Atlanta area were shut down completely by community demands including from former students and families who felt duped by the dishonest practices at the school.

More and more of the darker workings of the Gulen charter schools have started to be aired from former teachers or insiders. There are repeated but so far not proven in court of law accusations of mandated tithing by the Turkish immigrant adherents; this would certainly be in line with Gulen movement practices elsewhere. In the U.S., however, the added twist is these charter school employee salaries are entirely from public sources, so it's not a stretch to say the American education system is indirectly subsidizing the Gulenist missionary purposes.

The other troubling—and substantiated—practice is the active, regular workplace discrimination that takes place against the American educators and staffers from the Turkish staff and administrators. The reviews of the publicly available teacher rosters and the labor condition applications for the Turkish workers showed that American teachers were commonly paid substantially less than the Turkish visa-holding educators. In the Chicago Math and Science Academy unionization drive, a vocal union supporter who was in her third trimester of pregnancy was summarily fired; she later won her labor board case alleging violations under federal labor law. Many teachers in Ohio called for investigations into questionable practices at the Concept Schools, including disparate treatment of American certified teachers compared to the H1-B visa teachers from Turkey.

In my most sympathetic moods, I can see how some of the local education bureaucrats have been too inattentive to these growing accusations against the Gulen charter school chains. In most cases, however, the entire charter school industry has convinced the public that these schools are exempt from any regulation at all and now are "self-policed" by a captured set of pro-market ideologues who serve solely to advance even more charter school openings. But I hold no sympathies for the federal Department of Education, which could have intervened at any point to notify the states and localities of the actions of federal or congressional authorities around some of the Gulen charter chains and foundations.

The FBI and other agencies (including the Dept of Ed) in 2014 jointly raided the offices of Concept Schools, a Gulenist management foundation, and a handful of schools under the Horizon Science brand to investigate illegal contracting for the E-Rate program that wires schools for internet services. Those investigations are now more than two years old and are "still on-going" according to FBI spokesmen in July before the so-called coup attempt.

The U.S. Dept of Education awarded the Gulenist Cosmos Foundation a multimillion-dollar grant to "replicate" its Harmony Science Academies program and grow the charter chain in Texas in 2011. In 2014, the Dept of Education Office of Civil Rights and the Harmony Science Academies and Cosmos Foundation "settled" an investigation into Harmony's possible violations of anti-discrimination laws in the selective admission of English Language Learner and disabled students. According to the settlement record, the Dept. of Education had been at multiple Harmony schools reviewing admission policies for many years and was offered a settlement by Harmony administrators before any formal investigation was concluded.

In October 2015, USA Today reported on the possible unethical foreign trips taken by dozens of Congress members to Turkey at the invitation of multiple Gulenist institutions including the Turquoise Council of Texas, a sister organization to the Cosmos Foundation. A followup story by USA Today cited dozens of suspicious political contributions by Turkish individuals employed at Gulenist institutions or charter schools. In one instance a large donor to Sen. Kelly Ayotte is quoted saying, "He is a good guy. He is doing a good job so far. I know him." Both Senate and House Ethics Committees are reportedly investigating the facts behind USA Today's reporting.

So what exactly is going on in Washington since the July 17 violence in Turkey? Vice President Biden was dispatched to Istanbul to hear the Turkish government’s grievances. The Republic of Turkey is demanding the exiled Gulen be extradited. Multiple departments and agencies of the federal government have monitored or investigated Gulenist institutions and charter schools for years, so there is undeniably a paper trail somewhere. However, the network of charter schools is now estimated to be more than 150 schools with enrollment of nearly 70,000 students.

The neighboring public school systems are normally expected to accept displaced students with any charter school closure, although some students would choose to enroll in other local charter operators. But could any local district manage the sudden arrival of dozens or hundreds of students from a shuttered Gulen school? In the Concept Schools case, 540 teachers across 17 schools enrolled nearly 6,500 students across a dozen or more districts in 2014. We all take for granted—and certainly the charter industry knows it—that no student would be turned away from their neighborhood public school. That is their right to attend and be admitted. But is the education bureaucracy contemplating this possible outcome of the shutdown of these Gulen schools?

The lack of transparency of the Gulen charter network and the failure of federal and state oversight are warning signs of the dangers involved in turning over taxpayer dollars for public education to private charter operators. In the case of the Gulen network, the amount of money involved is enormous—hundreds of millions of dollars. Shouldn’t there be government investigations? A moratorium on adding more schools to these networks? Where is the voice of the charter industry for due diligence in schools where we send our children? Our children deserve better.


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