Turkish Charter Schools in America
Recent developments in Loudoun County, Virginia have brought national attention once again to Imam Fethullah Glen, the Turkish cleric whose followers allegedly run at least 120 charter schools in America. The Turkish-operated schools, if taken as a combined unit, would make up the largest charter school association in the country. They are funded by U.S. tax dollars, and are run by independent boards, often made up solely of Turkish expatriates.
It has been reported that the FBI and other federal agencies are investigating various aspects of the Glen empire, said to be worth billions of dollars, but details of those investigations are scarce. Details about the operators of the schools are often equally murky.
Several states have launched investigations into the administration of Glen schools, the awarding of contracts to build and supply the schools, and the practice of hiring Turkish teachers to work in the U.S. using H-1B visas. H-1B visas are issued specifically to allow highly skilled foreign workers temporary residency in the U.S. to work for employers in “specialty occupations” requiring “highly specialized knowledge.” Turkish schools claim they can’t find Americans to fill positions teaching math and science.
Imam Gülen came to the United States in 1999, after Turkish governmental authorities accused him of promoting an Islamic state there. He was tried (in absentia) and acquitted of the charge in 2006.
The charter schools linked to Gülen sometimes teach Turkish language and culture, and usually employ Turkish citizens as teachers, but administrators often deny any link to Gülen. However, USA Today reported that:
Documents available at various foundation websites and in federal forms required of non-profit groups show that virtually all of the schools have opened or operate with the aid of Gülen-inspired “dialogue” groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture. In one case, the Ohio-based Horizon Science Academy of Springfield in 2005 signed a five-year building lease with the parent organization of Chicago’s Niagara Foundation, which promotes Gülen’s philosophy. . . . Gülen is the foundation’s honorary president. In many cases, charter school board members also serve as dialogue group leaders. (08-17-10)
Gülen has denied connection to the schools, but when denied a visa by the U.S. Immigration Service in 2007, he sued, claiming he was an “alien of extraordinary ability in education.” He claimed his followers “had established more than 600 educational institutions” worldwide. As Prof. Joshua Hendrick summarized in the USA Today article, “Gülen is both the reason behind his schools, and he has nothing whatsoever to do with them.” Hendrick, whose doctoral dissertation focused on the Gülenist movement, commented in a New York Times article about Gülenist connections that Gülen’s denials “had only deepened the ambiguity and helped fuel suspicion.” He asked, “Why do leaders deny affiliation when affiliation is clear?” (06-06-2011)
Gülen won the immigration lawsuit and is in the U.S. courtesy of a green card he obtained in 2008. He now resides at a secluded and well-guarded compound in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
The New York Times stated that even though the schools are inspired by Mr. Gulen’s philosophy and religious outlook, they do not teach religion. (06-06-11) But some critics say the schools impart Islamic values and that Islamic prayer is sometimes included in the school day.
In a 2010 interview in USA Today, Mehmet Argin, then the principal of Tucson’s Sonoran Science Academy (SSA), said it is wrong to link charter schools founded by Turkish-Americans to the Gülen Movement “just because Turkish-Americans may be inspired by Mr. Gülen.”
SSA was awarded a 2012 gold designation from US News & World Report that ranks it #144 among American schools, #25 among the best charter schools in America, and #4 among charter schools in the state of Arizona.
It is the academic success achieved in some of the schools, particularly in math and science, which attracts students and parents, many of whom are unaware of the links to a Muslim cleric, and other controversial aspects.
Complaints that the Turkish schools favor Turkish-owned businesses are widespread. From building new schools to supplying cafeteria food, non-Turkish American businesses are usually shut out of the supply line.
In Texas, the Cosmos Foundation was started in the ’90s by a group of Turkish educators and businessmen with the intent to build Turkish schools using the name Harmony Schools. A New York Times review of new construction, renovation, and service contracts from 2009 to 2011 revealed that all but three of 35 contracts, worth a total of $82 million, went to Turkish-owned businesses.ÿLocal companies claim they were not awarded contracts, despite submitting lower bids. (06-06-11)
In Georgia, Gülen schools allegedly ignored bidding requirements and purchased “t-shirts, teacher training, and video production services from organizations with connections to school officials, or Gülen followers, . . . businesses, and groups with ties to the Gülen Movement.” (New York Times, 06-05-12)
Loudoun County, VA
After months of questions from citizens, a select committee of the Loudoun County School Board in Virginia, in December 2012, recommended that the full board deny the charter school application of the Loudoun Math and Information Technology Academy (LMITA). The school was opposed when clear answers about the Turkish and Gülen connection of the proposed school and its leadership were not forthcoming.
Another reason for the recommendation to deny the application is that the Turkish school, after which LMITA was modeled, the Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter in Anne Arundel County, Maryland has shown some disappointing results and has been in financial distress. According to the Washington Times, “there is significant evidence [at Chesapeake Science Point] of chronic violations of federal, state and local policies and regulations throughout its six years of operations, with little or inconsistent improvement, reflecting deficiencies in fiscal responsibility and organizational viability.” (12-10-12)
The Loudoun Times reported that during a school board committee meeting, James Cha, a Presbyterian pastor in Herndon, VA, claimed he taught in a Gülen school in Uzbekistan. He stated that while religion was not directly taught during the school day, teachers and students were pushed toward Gülen’s brand of Islam. “There was recruitment for students into religious programs outside of the classroom,” Cha said. “Those who showed a lot of interest were actually taken to Turkey and trained in their religion and came back as jihadists.” (11-26-12)
The Virginia Board of Education unanimously endorsed the LMITA application in July of 2012, so the final decision moved to the local school board committee. It is unknown whether the full Loudoun County School Board will abide by the committee’s recommendation to decline the application.
The schools linked to Imam Gülen bring hundreds of teachers to America from Turkey each year. In Texas, the Cosmos Foundation that operates 25 Harmony schools imported 731 Turkish employees using H-1B visas between 2001 and 2010. (USA Today, 08-17-10)
FrontPage Magazine reported that at Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College, Pennsylvania, the former president of a parents’ group said that “certified, American teachers were being replaced by Turkish male teachers with limited English-speaking skills.” (11-01-12)
Even 60 Minutes was forced to admit in its flattering May 2012 report on Gülen that the organization “does lack transparency: its funding, hierarchy, and ambitions remain hidden-leading our State Department to wonder in cables between Ankara and Washington if Gülen has an ‘insidious political agenda.'” (Front Page, 11-13-12)
In response to threats by the Prime Minister of Turkey to close down schools in Turkey run by his followers, Imam Gülen declared with defiance, “If they close your schools, you will respond by opening a university. And when they close your university, you should open ten schools. You should never stop marching.” (Hurriyet Daily News, 11-27-12)
Gülen’s own words give rise to speculation concerning his methods and motives. He stated in a 1999 video concerning the secular Turkish government:
“You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers. . . . Until the conditions are ripe, they [the followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere. . . . The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it. . . .” (The Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2009)