Who Is Fethullah Gulen?

Who Is Fethullah Gulen? And why is he opening — or “inspiring” — U.S. charter schools? Claire Berlinski writes about Gulen’s politics and the controversial charter network, which imports many Turkish teachers, in City Journal.

Feds investigate Gulen’s Turkish teachers

More than 120 charter schools in 25 states have been founded by followers of Fethullah Gullen, an Islamic leader exiled by Turkey. Federal agents are investigating whether teachers imported from Turkey have been forced to kickback money to a Muslim movement known as Hizmet. The FBI and Departments of Labor and Education investigators are involved, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Unlike in Turkey, where Gulen’s followers have been accused of pushing for an authoritarian Islamic state, there is no indication the American charter network has a religious agenda in the classroom.

Religious scholars consider the Gulen strain of Islam moderate, and the investigation has no link to terrorism. Rather, it is focused on whether hundreds of Turkish teachers, administrators, and other staffers employed under the H1B visa program are misusing taxpayer money.

Gulen schools used 684 H1B visas in 2009 to bring in Turkish administrators and teachers. Many of the teachers were math and science specialists.

Ruth Hocker, former president of the parents’ group at the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College, began asking questions when popular, certified American teachers were replaced by uncertified Turkish men who often spoke limited English and were paid higher salaries.

Although the school is located near Penn State, which graduates many certified teachers, school officials claimed “they couldn’t find qualified American teachers,” Hocker said.

An anti-Gulen web site also accuses the schools of hiring Turkish teachers who speak poor English, hiding ties to the Gulen movement and focusing resources on “a small group of high-performing students” who compete in math and science competitions, “while the curriculum is mundane or even deficient for the remaining students.” The site does not claim the schools teach Islam.

Here’s a pro-Gulen web site.

Turkish-American charters questioned

Charter schools started by Turkish-American educators are raising questions, reports USA Today. The schools are inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic leader who now lives in Pennsylvania.

Followers of the so-called Gülen Movement operate an “education, media and business network” in more than 100 countries, says University of Oregon sociologist Joshua Hendrick.

Officially, Gülen-inspired schools teach tolerance and multicultural understanding. Critics say Gülen promotes Turkish nationalism and Islam. At the very least, his views are ambiguous.

There are no official ties with Gülen, but “virtually all of the schools have opened or operate with the aid of Gülen-inspired “dialogue” groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture, reports USA Today.

While Turkish language and culture are often offered in the curriculum, there’s no evidence the schools teach Islam.

. . . The Turkish-affiliated schools focus on math and science and often appear as top scorers on standardized tests. Still, lawmakers, researchers and parents are beginning to put the schools under the microscope for hiring practices — they import hundreds of teachers from Turkey each year — and for steps they take to keep their academic profile high.

Texas parents last year  accused a Gülen-inspired Harmony school of “pushing out” underperforming students.

Ed Fuller, a University of Texas-Austin researcher, found that Harmony schools throughout Texas had an “extraordinarily high” student attrition rate of about 50% for students in grades six through eight.

“It’s not hard to be ‘exemplary’ if you lose all the kids who aren’t performing,” Fuller says.

Why would Americans choose a school that stresses Turkish language and culture? Apparently, they want good math and science instruction and are willing to accept some gratuitous Turkishness. The Gülen-inspired schools enter the best students in math and science competitions, winning awards and attracting parents who want their children to excel. (The high turnover rate may reflect students who aren’t able to win awards and don’t see the need for Turkish.)

A parent gave me a link to a web site criticizing Gülen, but also said her children are challenged by their teachers and enjoy the hands-on science curriculum. She’d prefer fewer Turkish teachers and more transparency by the administration, but plans to keep her children in the school.

USA Today compares the Gülen-inspired schools controversy to the questions about whether Waldorf-inspired schools should be publicly funded. There are similarities.