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 only 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), Indiana, Oklahoma (and here), Texas (also here), Arkansas, Louisiana (also here), New Jersey, Georgia, and North Carolina. It was also reported that the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education are investigating practices at these schools.
The concerns raised about the charter schools in the GM network have related 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. Still, authorizers continue to approve charter applications, ill-informed parents continue to use 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 been living on a secluded compound in rural Pennsylvania since 1998. Members 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 U.S. 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.” Last year an analyst viewed the raison d’être for the schools “spreading across the globe” in this way: “Students will learn how to speak Turkish, the national anthem, how to be the ‘right kind of Muslim’, etc. In essence, it buys [the GM] loyalty.”