Why it's wrong:
Reasons the Gulen Movement should not be running our charter schools
Why is it wrong that the Gulen Movement is running an interconnected network of over a hundred publicly-funded charter schools in the United States? If a one-sentence answer is required, it is that the schools are run for the benefit of the Gulen Movement, not for the benefit of students or the public. This is explained in more depth below.
Part of the reason can be found in a story that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran on March 20, 2011, entitled “U.S. charter-school network with Turkish link draws federal attention” discussing how federal agencies, including the Department of Labor, the Department of Education and the FBI, are investigating the Gulen charter schools because of concerns that Gulenist employees are systematically kicking back part of their salaries to the Movement.
There are additional reasons not discussed in the Philadelphia Inquirer's article.
The Gulenist educational model is questionable for publicly-funded schools
The Gulenist educational model involves a disproportionate allocation of resources to a small group of high-performing students who win awards and gain publicity for the school, while the curriculum is mundane or even deficient for the remaining students. Such a model is not appropriate for publicly-funded schools, which must distribute resources fairly among all students. It is a model for success in the business of education, not in education itself.
While many Gulen charter schools seem to show unusual success with state standardized tests, performance on college admissions tests such as SAT and ACT does not, on average, seem to match up to this. This raises the question of whether these schools should really be considered as excelling based on state standardized tests.
Right to know
Parents have a right to be fully informed of all significant affiliations of their school, including those that do not have an official status or paper trail. The fact that government authorities, some of whom must have known for years that the Gulen charter schools are run by the Gulen Movement, never disclosed this to parents is unacceptable. Parents and teachers should not have to individually rediscover this connection all by themselves.
Misleading marketing tactics.
Gulenists use heavy-handed tactics to market their charter schools to parents. Gulenists pressure current and former students, parents and teachers to write favorable reviews or letters for their schools, nominate their schools or teachers for awards, and speak favorably of the schools to the public. Press releases are constantly issued regarding any perceived accomplishment of the schools, no matter how small. In talking to the press, Gulenists stretch the truth, often to the breaking point. Examples include deliberately misleading statements about class sizes, graduation rates and college acceptance rates. A perception is created that the Gulen schools are accomplishing wonders, when solid evidence suggests that there is nothing special about them, and in fact they have many weak points academically. While newspaper articles have lauded the schools for an emphasis on college preparation, many of them do not even have a 12th grade, and the vast majority of students in Gulen charter schools will graduate from other schools. Moreover, when parents hear from their school that students have won prizes at "international competitions" such as ISWEEEP or the Turkish Olympiads, they are generally not informed that these competitions are run by the same network running their school. This may give parents an inflated sense of the school's accomplishments.
Many favorable comments posted on forums such as greatschools.net or in response to newspaper articles seem likely to have been written by Gulenists. This is inferred from the writing style, grammar errors typical of native Turkish speakers, and the characteristic talking points that appear in them. In one case, comments appeared in response to articles on Gulen schools in Georgia and Arizona under the screen name "GitanoBandolero," known to be used by a high-level Gulenist working at the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation. This individual posted the line "Let's enjoy having this successful institution in our region" in an Arizona newspaper, yet he was located in Chicago. Damage control websites with names such as "harmonyparent.com" or "horizonparent.com" are clearly written by Gulenists, and do not represent a grassroots parent effort.
School governance should not be secret
Parents have a right to know who is truly governing their school. School policies should not be secretly set by a reclusive imam in Pennsylvania or his associates, when their names do not appear on any school website. Parents have a right to confront the individuals who are actually responsible for school policy. It is clear from the uniformity in policies across the Gulen charter schools, and even their resemblance to Gulen schools in other countries, that many of these policies are not set locally.
It is questionable whether Gulenists can be trusted to protect the privacy of student and parent data that they collect. One example is a document found online that is visible to anyone, from Lisa Academy in Arkansas, listing all students in several classes, including personal information such as their addresses, telephone numbers, parents’ emails, and whether or not their lunches were reduced price or free. How did this document find its way to the internet?
Parents unwittingly become financial sponsors and supporters of the Gulen Movement
Most parents enroll their children in Gulen charter schools because the publicity and standardized test scores suggest they are good schools. They have no idea that this choice means supporting the Gulen Movement, both financially (through forced contributions, the schools’ patronizing of Gulenist businesses, and diversion of funds to Gulenist organizations) and by helping Gulenists obtain visas, respectability, and political connections. If parents knew this, they might object to the schools as a matter of principle. The Gulen Movement’s ideology and tactics may be objectionable to some parents. The Movement is highly controversial, and is now receiving negative attention in the international media because of the arrests in Turkey of a number of journalists who wrote critically about the Movement.
Students become unwitting tools of the Gulen Movement
Teachers are often the next most influential adults in students’ lives after parents, and students naturally trust their Gulenist teachers and administrators. Some Gulen charter school students have posted favorable comments about their school online, or have praised their school when interviewed by journalists. These students may have no idea of the school’s connection with the Gulen Movement. What could be more natural and harmless than showing school spirit and pride in a public school? Yet these students are in fact advertising for the Gulen Movement. Students who participate in the Turkish Olympiads are told by their school that this is a way to enrich their lives by learning another language and culture, yet in fact they are involved in a nationalistic pageant that has political and religious significance. Some students have even recited poems by Fethullah Gulen himself. It is wrong for students to be placed in a position of supporting the Gulen Movement when they and their parents are not fully informed about it. Students’ statements in newspaper articles, their online comments, their photos posted on school websites, and the youtube videos of their Turkish Olympiad performances will live on forever in cyberspace and can never be erased from the public record. In the future, when public awareness of undesirable aspects of the Gulen Movement is greater, students may regret that they cannot free themselves from all these digital traces. Attendance at a public school should not come loaded with any hidden geopolitical baggage.
Students who are useful to the Gulen Movement are given preferential treatment. This includes students who win awards that give the school publicity, students whose parents donate to or support the school, and students who choose to study Turkish, participate in the Turkish Olympiads, or get involved with Turkish cultural extracurricular activities. Favoritism is not easy to document, but may manifest itself through psychological tactics, the amount of attention received from teachers, and uneven enforcement of discipline.
Home visits appear to have an underlying, undisclosed purpose
Home visits are presented to parents as an opportunity to create a more effective partnership that will further their child’s education. The parents are told that these visits are a sign of the school staff’s dedication to teaching. Yet an article on Gulen schools in Russia from the Moscow-based Middle East Institute states that files with information are created for each student and their parents, and information gathered in home visits is used to identify students and parents who may be sympathetic to the Gulen Movement in the future, or who may otherwise be useful to the Movement. (The practice of home visits is universal to Gulen schools around the world.)
Science academies run by a group that believes in fringe science
The Gulen charter schools, many of which have the word “science” in their name, are advertised as placing an emphasis on science, yet they are run by a movement whose leader holds many views that are incompatible with mainstream science, including beliefs in creationism, extraterrestrial life, a large influence of pre-Columbian Muslim explorers on Native American cultures, and other theories that are not accepted by mainstream scientists. Fountain Magazine, the premier publication of the Gulen Movement in the U.S., contains many articles in which pseudo-scientific reasoning is applied to bolster the religious or ideological positions of the Gulen Movement.
It might be argued that these positions are not relevant to parents and teachers as long as the school curriculum for science teaching follows mainstream principles. However, it is likely that Gulenist ideology is behind some of the peculiarities of the Gulen charter schools. These schools tend to emphasize math but are very weak in experimental science and inquiry-based learning. This may be attributable to the Gulenist view of learning as revelatory.
Teachers’ and employees’ concerns regarding hiring, employment abuses and discrimination
The Charter School Watchdog website is the best source of documentation of abuses in hiring, firing and treatment of employees in Gulen charter schools. Some of the email correspondence written by school officials that can be read on this website is disturbing.
Also, the Charter School Scandals blog has posted a page about the ongoing struggle of the teachers at Chicago Math and Science Academy, who are trying to unionize through legal means. The school fired one teacher in retaliation and is trying to block their efforts. This is also documented in a Hawaii Free Press article.
The preferential treatment of Gulenist teachers (who are usually Turkish or Turkic) over other teachers is discriminatory and has already led to several lawsuits. The Gulen charter schools are abusing the H-1B visa system to bring many Gulenists to the US, even as more qualified Americans remain unemployed (see here, here and here for more details.)
The Gulen Movement virtually never places women in positions of power. Since criticism of this practice started appearing in newspapers, Gulenists have promoted some women to positions such as “assistant principal,” or have appointed them as board members. This is mere window-dressing. Control of the schools, and especially the schools’ finances, remains completely in the firm grip of male Gulenist hands.
In some schools, Gulenists have retained American employees who are unqualified, simply because these employees can be trusted to not ask questions and help the school avoid trouble. This is unacceptable; hiring decisions in a public school should be based on teacher quality, not teacher loyalty to the school administration and its associated politico-religious group.
Taxpayers’ concerns - financial abuses and conflicts of interest
There are immense financial conflicts of interest in the Gulen charter schools, as explained in the page "How the schools serve the Gulen Movement." Having the finances of over 100 charter schools all controlled by members of one particular politico-religious group puts far too much power in the hands of a single organization and is an invitation to abuse.
Gulenists redirect school tax dollars from established schools to startup schools to support expansion of their regional chains. This is not right. The money that a school receives should go towards education in that school only. Clues to one egregious example can be found in a letter that the administration of Dove Science Academy sent to parents in April 2009, asking the parents to donate to ISWEEEP. The letter stated the following:
“Our foundation, who spent more than $800,000 to start Dove Elementary, is a sponsor of an international event called ISWEEEP (the International Sustainable Word (Energy, Engineering and Environment) Project Olympiad). Over 600 students from 52 different countries and 40 different states have participated. You can get more information about it at www.isweeep.org. After the financial support they gave us to get started, we need to show them our support for their foundation. ...... When discussing several alternative fundraising options at a recent meeting, one person proposed that we simply write to the parents and let them know that we desperately need money to improve our playground and also to support the ISWEEEP foundation.”
The phrase “ISWEEEP Foundation” is a clear reference to the Cosmos Foundation, which runs ISWEEEP. Thus, this letter is an admission that the Cosmos Foundation gave $800,000 to start Dove Elementary. But the Cosmos Foundation is the charter holder of schools in Texas; thus it apparently used Texas taxpayer money to start a charter school in Oklahoma.
In Texas and Ohio, Gulen schools are working to obtain huge bond deals, some of which have already been approved. These bonds are purchased by private investors, and many will not mature before 2040. The amounts involved are in the tens of millions of dollars. How can anyone be confident these schools will remain viable that long? A bill is currently being proposed in Texas (SB 597) to back charter bonds with state funds. This is potentially another subprime crisis in the making.
General public’s concerns
Educational researcher Dr. Ed Fuller made some statements about the Harmony school network in Texas that were quoted in a USA Today article. Since then, he has been demonized by the Gulen Movement, which has called him derogatory names on various websites. This is unacceptable behavior for operators of publicly-funded schools. It creates an environment where people feel intimidated. All members of the public should feel free to speak critically of any publicly-funded school.
Parallel society & lack of transparency
The parallel society that Gulenists create wherever they go is characterized by secrecy, deception, unethical tactics for silencing critics including threats and intimidation, deliberate misinformation campaigns, brainwashing, and the use of bribery to recruit supporters. These are not values that belong in the United States’ public education system.
Misrepresentation when soliciting donations
The Gulen charter schools are misrepresented to the community as locally-controlled, independent entities. They actively solicit donations from local businesses and charities who would likely have a completely different view on contributing if they knew these schools were part of a vast multinational empire that has been estimated by some to have a worth measured in the billions of dollars.
Chain schools go against flexibility and innovation
A nationwide chain of generic, mass-produced charter schools means a lack of local governance, local input, flexibility and innovation, all of which goes against the idea behind the charter school system.
Concerns for the impact on tolerance in the United States
The Gulen charter schools are abusing American parents, teachers, students and taxpayers in many ways. Whenever these schools are criticized, their defenders immediately and aggressively launch counterattacks saying the accusations are only due to “Islamophobia,” “racism,” or lack of appreciation for "diversity."
This raises serious concerns for other Muslims or minority groups in the US. It brings to mind the fable of the boy who cried wolf. After so many false cries of “Islamophobia,” how will Americans react when Muslims really are victims of prejudice?
Through its greed, its insatiable thirst for power, and its unscrupulous public relations methods, the movement of Fethullah Gulen will ultimately prove to be a major setback for tolerance in the United States.
It is disturbing and disappointing that a number of US academicians who have defended the Gulen Movement, believing it to be a vehicle for increasing tolerance, have not understood that the Movement's activities actually work against this cause. It is not too late for these individuals to reverse course and speak out, and we hope they will.