Turkish charter schools tied to Gulen movement

Dana Teegardin's son was enrolled at Fulton Science Academy for three years before she stumbled across an online article connecting the Alapharetta middle school to an Islamic movement emanating from Turkey.

Her worry wasn't that educators at the high-performing charter school were indoctrinating her son: She had no evidence to suggest that FSA teachers were imposing their religious beliefs, and she says she was pleased with the quality of his education.

But it disturbed her that school officials denied what seemed an obvious connection to the Gulen movement, a global network created by Turkish Muslim followers of author and poet Fethullah Gulen.

"The principal said ‘We have no organic connection to the movement,'" said Teegardin, of Roswell. "I guess when they talk about it in Turkey in literal terms, it means they are not legally connected -- and there is some way that makes sense to them."

Tuesday, the Fulton County School Board released a highly critical audit of FSA Middle School. District administrators have also denied the school's application to renew its charter.

FSA leaders declined a request for interviews Tuesday while they review the audit findings. They previously announced that they will convert the school to a private school.

FSA Middle School operates in concert with two other Fulton charter schools, an elementary school and a high school. The three campuses are part of a nationwide trend that began with Turkish-run private schools in New Jersey and Brooklyn in the 1990s and rapidly grew with an emphasis on charter schools in the early 2000s. More than 130 Gulen movement-affiliated charter schools now operate in 26 states and Washington, D.C.

Harmony Schools, collectively managed by the Cosmos Foundation, is the biggest network, with 36 schools across Texas. Others are run by such groups as Concept Schools, which has more than two dozen charter schools in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and Magnolia Schools in California.

American schools influenced by the Gulen movement have no official connection to one another, experts say. Instead, they are part of a massive global social network of faith-based organizations, businesses, and schools run by Turks.

Inside Turkey, the Gulen movement coalesced as a counter to rigid secularism, which for decades barred all religious influences from the political sphere, say researchers who have studied the phenomenon. Those origins help explain what can look to Americans like evasiveness, they say.

Most Gulen followers come from “an increasingly influential middle and upper class of social and economic conservatives,” wrote Joshua Hendrick, who teaches sociology at Loyola University of Maryland. Their primary aim, he wrote in a journal article, is "to increase the Muslim share in Turkish capitalism."

In tandem with Turkey's current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gulen movement also promotes Turkey's image in the world. To that end, Gulen followers regularly host public officials, journalists, academics, students and parents -- like Teegardin -- on immersion trips to Turkey.

Turkish-run charter schools in the U.S., including the Fulton Science Academy, rely heavily on Turkish administrators and teachers, many of whom are brought to the U.S. on work visas. The schools conduct business largely with Turkish-owned companies, promote Turkish culture and language, and routinely take students and parents on overseas trips to Turkey.

In recent years, scholars, bloggers and news organizations have increasingly raised questions about how Gulen-influenced charter schools use public money and their ties to Turkish religious and political groups. A New York Times report in June 2011 examined the rise of Texas charter schools tied to Turkey. A 2010 USA Today article found that "virtually all of the schools have opened or operate with the aid of Gulen-inspired ‘dialogue' groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture."

For William Martin, an expert in religion and public policy at Rice University's Baker Institute, the schools' connection to the Gulen movement isn't up for debate. Martin, who has traveled to Turkey with Texas-based school officials, believes the schools should be transparent about their ideological origin.

"I have told them, ‘why do you say there is no connection? Why don’t you just say we are people inspired by Fethullah Gulen and one of the things he teaches is education and the importance of science?'" he said. "They said, their lawyers [advised them] that is what they should say. I said ‘Your lawyers are doing a disservice.' I think some of them are coming around to see that."

The overarching mission, say academics such as Martin, is more about commercial and economic development than religious proselytizing. Martin flatly dismisses the notion that the schools are promoting a Muslim agenda.

"The bulk of the people in that moment are Anatolian businessmen. It's really a very enterprising, entrepreneurial movement that wants Islam to have a seat at the table," he said. "The idea that these are madrasas secretly trying to convert people to Islam and impose Sharia law on children is simply false. There is no evidence of that."

For parent activists such as Sharon Higgins, an Oakland-based blogger who has tracked the growth of Turkish-run charter schools in recent years, the concern is less about religious policy and more about schools using taxpayer dollars to benefit other Turks, she said.

"We do know that they are giving all of their business to their friends in the network. This is a web of people who are all interconnected in their own little world, keeping things to themselves and doing favors for each other and tapping into all the tax money they are getting," she said.

Higgins believes the schools should operate as private schools. "That’s what they should have done all along," she said. "What bothers me is the use of public money to be deceptive."