Long NYT piece on Gulen schools in USA

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

There was a quite long piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago on American charter schools, particularly in Texas, that are associated with the Turkish religious figure Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, who was forced out of Turkey in 1999, is the center of a large network of schools, businesses, and media holdings (including Today's Zaman) located in Turkey and in other countries.

Fethullah Gulen


When I was doing research in the former USSR, I came across people who had studied in, or knew people who'd studied in, Gulen schools in Kazan, Ufa, Baku, and other places. Almost all of these schools have been shut down in recent years, mainly because of fears that the schools were spreading religious propaganda. Students, it seems, were often encouraged to study in Turkey, where they lived in dormitories, also controlled by the Gulen group, where a religious lifestyle was strongly encouraged.

In the United States, there seems to be no issue concerning religious instruction or pressure. Indeed, the schools seem to be much better than American schools at teaching science, which is hardly surprising.

According to the NYT article, there are about 120 Gulen-affiliated schools in the United States operating in 25 states.

The issue with the Gulen schools seems to be money, rather than religious instruction or pressure. Charter schools are profit-making entities, and the Gulen-connected schools are able to beat out the competition, in part, by paying their own teachers less than the prevailing wage. 
In February, a Chicago charter school union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers complained to the federal Department of Labor, alleging that the Chicago Math and Science Academy and Concept Schools, a group that operates 25 schools in the Midwest, had abused the visa system by “routinely assigning these teachers duties or class load that seemingly do not take into account the laws governing H1-B visa holders.”
The Labor Department had already been investigating at least one Concept school. The investigation appeared to have been triggered by a complaint in July 2008 by Mustafa Emanet, a network systems administrator and teacher at a middle school in Cleveland. By law, imported teachers must be paid “prevailing wage.” Mr. Emanet alleged that while his visa reflected his promised salary, $44,000, he was actually paid $28,000 his first year.
The schools also appear to be funneling public money (these schools are "charter schools," which means they are privately operated but receive public funding--an idea that George W. Bush and other critics of public education in this country have championed in recent years) to Gulen-affiliated businesses.
TDM Contracting was only a month old when it won its first job, an $8.2 million contract to build the Harmony School of Innovation, a publicly financed charter school that opened last fall in San Antonio.
It was one of six big charter school contracts TDM and another upstart company have shared since January 2009, a total of $50 million in construction business. Other companies scrambling for work in a poor economy wondered: How had they qualified for such big jobs so fast?
The secret lay in the meteoric rise and financial clout of the Cosmos Foundation, a charter school operator founded a decade ago by a group of professors and businessmen from Turkey. Operating under the name Harmony Schools, Cosmos has moved quickly to become the largest charter school operator in Texas, with 33 schools receiving more than $100 million a year in taxpayer funds.
In response to questions, Harmony provided a list showing that local American contractors had been awarded 13 construction and renovation jobs over the years. But a review of contracts since January 2009 — 35 contracts and $82 million worth of work — found that all but 3 jobs totaling about $1.5 million went to Turkish-owned businesses.
The schools also seem to be doing a good job of currying favor with local politicians:
One group, the Raindrop Foundation, helped pay for State Senator Leticia Van de Putte’s travel to Istanbul last year, according to a recent campaign report. In January, she co-sponsored a Senate resolution commending Mr. Gulen for “his ongoing and inspirational contributions to promoting global peace and understanding.”
In an interview, Ms. Van de Putte described the trip as a working visit.
I think the NYT piece highlights concerns relating to both the charter school 'system' in the United States and the Gulen movement more generally. Charter schools are attractive to some people because they take the management of education out of the hands of public officials and unions, putting schools instead in the charge of privately-run corporations which, it is thought, are more efficient and motivated to attract students. There is, without question, some logic to this argument, but it also seems clear that--especially in places like Texas, where there are only 9 public servants responsible for surveying more than 500 charter schools, there is often very little oversight.
The United States needs a strong public education system, not a mish-mash of  fly-by-night organizations funneling public money back into their own allied businesses.

As for the Gulen group...well, people in Turkey know enough about them already. Partly by necessity, and partly by choice, they're a secretive network, and they seem quite dedicated to advancing their own with respect to jobs, contracts, and influence. This can be seen in academia in Turkey, and certainly in the media--and I don't think Today's Zaman is the only English-language news outfit reporting on Turkey that they control. 

As is the case with the AKP--with whom the Gulen networks are allied, but not entirely--this isn't just about 'Islam.' Money is important, and so is power. The Gulen types are hardly the only folks in Turkey to be interested in money and power, but especially now their accumulation of both has become considerable.

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