A Rosetta Stone for the so called Gulen Charter Schools

May be they will get it if it is said in Latin: Illic Est Haud Talis Res Ut Gulen Pactum Schola! There is no such thing as a Gulen Charter School! Fethullah Gulen said it himself in several settings1. The so called Gulen Charter School administrators explained it many times. But they still don’t get it, and probably won’t get it no matter how many different languages it is translated into or how many different contexts it is articulated in. But let’s give it another shot.

Quid est Carta Schola? What’s a charter school anyway?

US Department of Education defines a charter school as “a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract or charter with the state; the charter exempts the school from selected state or local rules and regulations. In return for funding and autonomy, the charter school must meet the accountability standards articulated in its charter.”2

Reiterating the definition, a charter school is a public school run by an independent entity. In order to run a charter, one needs to draft and sign a contract with the state or district board of education.  In the contract, the authorizer could grant some level of autonomy and freedom from several rules and regulations. Per the agreement, a charter school may develop its own curriculum, or set its own educational program, or hire its own staff, of course all under the oversight of the authorizing agent. Another aspect of charter schools is that they are schools of choice. The voluntary enrollment makes a charter school more accountable before the board of education, and more importantly before the parents and students.

US Charter Schools, a site supported by US Department of Education and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, add the following to the definition “The charter establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school's mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.”3 So unlike traditional public schools, charter schools cannot stay open unless they deliver high quality education.

EdReform has a short list of frequently asked questions4, clarifying several other aspects of charters schools. The following fast facts that can be derived from similar FAQ sites.
  • Charter schools are public schools that operate under the federal and state laws. There are very specific education articles that each and every charter school has to comply with.
  • Charter schools are mostly founded by non-profit organizations which are required to report not only their financials but also their operations to keep their non-profit status.
  • Charter school authorizers monitor and oversee the charter schools in their district. They audit charter school financials, operations and academic performance at least annually with a very fine-toothed comb. Depending on the severity of findings, schools are required to fix those issues within a cure period, and if due diligence is not followed, their charter can be revoked.

Qui est Gulen? And what’s Gulen got to do with charter schools?

How about the other part of the clause? Who is Fethullah Gulen and how is related to charter schools? A little research shows that Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish preacher, educator, author and a Muslim scholar currently living in the US.

Gulen Institute, a Houston based non-profit organization, introduce Fethullah Gulen as “the initiator and inspirer of the worldwide social movement of human values known as the Hizmet (Service) Movement or Gulen Movement. Focused on education where secular curricula are taught by teachers who aspire to represent high values of humanity, this social phenomenon defeats easy categorization.”5

It is not only the sociologists that have difficulty in categorizing Gulen Movement, but also the educators in analyzing the movement’s contribution to education. Dr. Muhammed Cetin, the author of “Gulen Movement: Civic Service without Borders”6, the most extensive study so far on the movement, explains the misunderstanding as follows: “The use of terms like ‘Gulen schools’ can arise from ignorance or disinformation. If the term ‘Gulen schools’ is equated with, for example, Montessori schools (where a particular training and qualifications are required for personnel and a specific methodology is used), it leads to misunderstanding.”

Dr. Cetin suggests Gulen-Inspired Schools as the correct term, “Because of its brevity, outsiders tend to use ‘Gulen schools’ rather than ‘Gulen-inspired schools’, but the shorter term seems to imply some sort of central control of activities and even an ideology, while the second makes it clearer that there is no centralization in the movement. Gulen movement participants tend to use the Turkish term hizmet (volunteer services) for the projects and services they provide. This is a solution for the inconsistency in naming the Gulen movement and the institutions it inspires and in clarifying their identity for outside observers.”

The Non Sequitur of the so called Gulen Charter Schools

EdReform reports that there are more than 5,000 charter schools serving more than 1.5 million schools in 40 states.7 So how many of these five thousand schools are Gulen Charter Schools? Nemo prorsus! Not one at all! Because there is no school in the United States named as ‘Gulen Charter School’. You could say, that’s a no brainer, but how about the rumors on the Web?

Well according to some internet spies within the blog circles there are more than a hundred. There are even a few charter school networks that had been named as Gulen Charter Schools. So far the winners are: Concept schools, Harmony Schools, Magnolia Schools, etc.

So how do these bloggers categorize these schools? What do they consider to decide whether a school is Gulen Charter School or not? Let’s look at the components of a charter school, see which one could be the common factor.  If we look at the listed charter schools and where they operate, we see they are all chartered under different states: some are in Ohio, some other in Texas, some else are in California. If we look at the specific locations, some reside in suburbia whereas others are located in the urban districts.  If we look at the student demographics, they vary a lot again. Some have African-Americans and some others have Latino-Americans as the majority of the population whereas some have very diverse demographics including various percentages of whites, blacks, and Hispanics.  

Is it the curriculum or educational program then? Gulen is an Islamic scholar, so these schools might be using an Islamic curriculum? That cannot be the case, as all charter schools are public schools, and the education is and has to be secular in all. Even the Catholic private schools converting to charter schools have to revise their curriculum to comply with that. In some states, charter schools don’t get any public funding for facilities, and if they need to lease space in a church, then they have to clean up or cover all religious signs in the school facilities too.

Some bloggers mention that the so called Gulen Charter Schools emphasize mathematics or science or technology as their focus of educational program. But so does several other hundred or thousand. Does that make Kennesaw Charter in Cobb County, or Washington Math Science Technology Charter School in DC, or Harbor Science and Arts Charter School in New York, Gulen Charter Schools as well? If not, esse quam videri!

For some it is inevitable to be labeled as a Gulen Charter School even if the school theme is different. One blogger notes that the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania charter school appears (?) to emphasize languages instead of the usual math and science emphasis. This specific blogger (on weebly) also lists several characteristics of Gulen Charter Schools as free after school tutoring, robotics clubs, online student information systems for assignments and grades, character education, high scores on standardized tests even with very challenging student demographics.  High achievements not only in state tests but national science fairs and international competitions as well. Well I don’t care what the school theme is then; just sign me up. I am serious. If you could locate such a school in my neighborhood let me know.

The question in hand was, why and how were these charter schools connected to Gulen? The blogger on Weebly lists several quotes from academia loosely referring to charter or Gulen schools which actually proves the misunderstanding on how these schools are related to Gulen. In other entries in the same blog, a bunch of names that seem to be cherry picked from staff of the so called Gulen Charter Schools are listed. Some of these staff happen to be previously employed by a Gulen affiliated institution, whereas some other published a note in an affiliated magazine, and some other participated in an interfaith event. So if you happen to pass by any of these and then contribute to public education as a teacher or an activist or even as a parent or student in one of the listed schools, and that school is somehow, and God knows how, remotely related to Gulen, then you are probably marked too. What is this if not McCarthyism?

The cavil about foreign employees of these charter schools is also significant. Harmony Schools is reported to hiring 15% of their teaching staff of 1,200 from other countries8. For Concept schools that figure is close to 25%9. Those numbers may seem high, but large public school districts are doing that as well. In 2008, Baltimore City schools had 593 foreign teachers out of 7000 and Prince George’s County had 556 out of 10,00010. This has not only taken place in Maryland; Los Angeles Unified District imported around 300 Filipino teachers since 200711. It is a common practice that school districts in need hire teachers from overseas.  A recent article concludes that we have to do that more as “They can help solve the teacher shortage while exposing our kids to new ways of looking at the world, says Professor Jonathan Zimmerman”.12 Unless you are xenophobe, why would you object to that?

The irony is that the foreign teachers in the so called Gulen Schools are accused of being the CIA-front in other parts of the world, and at the same time trying to infiltrate here in the United States. Jeff Stein of Washington Post13 quotes Graham Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul and author of ‘The Future of Political Islam’, responding “I think the story of 130 CIA agents in Gulen Schools in Central Asia is pretty wild”.  Fuller adds “I cannot even imagine trying to credibly sell such a scheme with a straight face within the agency. As for Nuri Gundes, I am not aware of who he is or what he has written. But there is a lot of wild stuff floating around in Turkey on these issues and Gulen is a real hot button issue.” Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of Turkish Daily News indentifies the conspiracy theories around Gulen a bit like The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-Semitic forgery.14

See where you will end up with if you follow the same defective logic on other charter schools. KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a nationwide network of charter schools, running 99 schools in twenty states serving more than 27,000 students.15 KIPP has recently opened a branch in Israel.16 Before that the highest contributor of KIPP was Don and Doris Fisher who have Jewish heritage. Moreover, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the cofounders of KIPP schools, both Jewish as well, respond to the question “How have your Jewish values informed your work?” by telling that “We were taught that, "The world itself rests upon the breath of the children in our schools" (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). For us, this is summed up in our philosophy that to be successful children need to "word hard and be nice."” 17 So are they cultivating the Hebrew tradition in KIPP schools? Is KIPP is a Judaic charter school network then? They may even be a Zionist network? I am sure you are laughing out loud to these paranoid conspiracies, but then how is that any different than labeling Concept Schools as Gulen Charter Schools?

If you have the same tunnel vision syndrome, you can repeat the same drill with Imagine Schools,18 largest commercial manager of charter schools in the US operating 73 schools serving more than 40,000 students, or with National Heritage Academies, another for-profit charter school management group running 67 schools in eight states. I am sure you could come up with enough material to fill up several blogs of rants and raves.

Who is playing this name and blame game?

A group of anonymous bloggers are playing around the so called Gulen Charter Schools with such endless rants and raves. All referring to each other in order to create a circle of Big Lie19: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
The rules of the game are really easy: Find a charter school with a theme focusing on science or math. Check out their staff and founders, and if you come up with an oriental name anywhere label the school as a Gulen Charter School. Circulate it within a ring of bloggers. Next step is to find out news about sponsors and supporters of the school. If you can’t locate any wrongdoing or anything illegitimate then make it up. For sure they will get some sort of grants and public funding. In case the auditors don’t report any findings, do a little photoshopping in order to manipulate the news: Buy the sponsor a kefiyyeh and make Bill Gates look like Bin Laden20. If that is too complicated for you, then copy a piece from these hate blogs, and submit comments to any articles that mentions a bit about education. The article does not need to be related to charter schools. Who cares about schools and education anyway? Just cast some aspersions.

Who are the players in this Big Lie name and blame game? You name it: ultra-right extremists, supremacists, xenophobes, grudged employees, disgruntled parents, and charter opponents. Among these ghost-fighters, a few are worth to mention to show the gravity of the situation:

Dr. Williams, who needs an immediate appointment with Dr. Phil, is running a hate website ranting on anything Islamic. It looks like the Don Quixote is running the last crusade against education jihad in his hallucinations. With every flow of rumors on the so called Gulen Charter Schools, Sir Odium Generis Islami dons his armors and sets out on his trusty steed tilting at windmills again. His orders to squiring Sanchos: Don’t let the bastards grind you down. One of his Sanchos should probably order their lionhearted knight couple of boxes of antipsychotics.

On another stage, the greatest actress of freedom is acting for America. Rising in defense of our liberty Brigitte Gabriel is calling all conscious patriots for action: They must be stopped! “They” obviously refer to Muslims. Casus belli! Are “they” extremists or fundamentalists? Who cares? Gulen appears to be innocuous, but he is a Muslim too, let’s throw mud at him, maybe this time it will stick. Gabriel is also founder of the American Congress for Truth, but which truth? In her paranoid schizophrenia there is no truth other than what she hallucinates.

In the world of such xenophobia and paranoia, you cannot possibly be a good citizen if you come from a different walk of life. Therefore you should not dare to contribute to community at all. How could you possibly help in education without a sinister intension or hidden agenda? If you were a Latino-American, African-American, or perish the thought a Muslim-American, then your existence is the very problem. Could there be any good in such an alien? No way! But one should ask then, where does Brigitte Gabriel come from? And don’t get your hopes high for Paul Williams either; unless his grandparents were one of the last Mohicans, he is an immigrant too. After all that might be the very reason for their hatred, as one cannot hate others so much without hating oneself. Odio ergo sum! As Descartes puts it, “It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.”

What can be done to correct the misconceptions?

Should Gulen post ads in the daily papers telling that he has nothing to do with charter schools, or a infiltration, if any, or stealth jihad or whatever dark scenarios or conspiracies that loons are hallucinating that day? Should he report to these watch sites every day pledging his allegiance? As a matter of fact, Gulen has been preaching peace, tolerance, and mutual respect, interfaith and intercultural dialog every day of his life since he has known himself. His teachings have been recorded and transcribed for decades. He has got no fights with anything but ignorance. He has been acquitted of all allegations in many courts.  In what jurisdiction does promoting love and tolerance, peace and harmony, education and dialog constitutes a crime anyway?
In a recent conversation, Gulen asks "Why don't they believe? Why do they, inside and outside, enter a process that can only be explained with reference to the psychological disease called paranoia? Why can't they get rid of their doubts and qualms? What has been said and done is evident, and despite there being nothing adding substance to their suspicions, why do they still look suspiciously at us?"
Answering, he says: "They do not look at the world from the same window as we do. They don't believe in the hereafter as we do. The values that are dear to us mean nothing to them. We seek the hereafter, paradise, the divine beauty, and we say, 'We do it to please God without any other motive,' but they focus on this world, seeing everything other than that. We say we are not motivated by fame, glory, position or money, while they put them at the center of their lives. While we say, 'One should not be deceived by this transient world, and we should do whatever we do in this ephemeral world with the hereafter in mind and to please God,' they think and believe exactly the opposite. Knowing that 'the tastes of this world are like a poisonous honey and pleasures are always accompanied by woes,' we believe that all pleasures, legitimate or illegitimate, are means for being tested in this world, but they do not have such criteria in their hands."
He then comes back to the beginning: "Even if they do not believe, and continue to be suspicious, you will not change your way. You will go on with your plans and projects for revival and the strengthening of universal values. Your attitude and behavior will continue to show that you are unfazed by worldly wants or goals. Without giving rise to paranoia, and by using various means, you will say strongly that you do not have motives other than achieving peace and the salvation of humanity. You will use everything from painting to music, from novels to poetry, from cinema to sports as a means. Some may raise objections. So be it. Some may have doubts if this is the right thing today. Let them. Why should we not use these means for revival and repair when they have been used for destruction up until now? I am a child of my time. I don't think anyone who is sane and who can make sense of the world properly will object to them. Even if they do, it means nothing. And you will be patient. You cannot treat chronic and gangrenous wounds all at once and magically."21

Wait till a blogger gets that!
Article from getthefact.com

  1. http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/rev1iew/1054-gulen-as-educator-and-religious-teacher.html
  2. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=30
  3. http://www.uscharterschools.org/pub/uscs_docs/o/index.htm
  4. http://www.edreform.com/Fast_Facts/Ed_Reform_FAQs/?Just_the_FAQs_Charter_Schools
  5. http://www.guleninstitute.org/index.php/Biography.html
  6. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/193529508X/
  7. http://www.edreform.com/Fast_Facts/Ed_Reform_FAQs/?Just_the_FAQs_Charter_Schools
  8. http://www.oaoa.com/articles/harmony-48165-group-lot.html
  9. http://www.conceptschools.org/?page_id=618
  10. http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-10-22-foreign-teachers_N.htm
  11. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/18/local/me-filipino18
  12. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09291/1006118-109.stm
  13. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/spy-talk/2011/01/islamic_group_is_cia_front_ex-.html
  14. http://www.fethullah-gulen.org/op-ed/protocol-learned-elders.html
  15. http://www.kipp.org/about-kipp
  16. http://www.thejewishweek.com/special_sections/education_careers/kipp_ing_point
  17. http://www.kipp.org/index.cfm?objectid=E212DF50-861F-11DF-98C1005056883C4D&print=1
  18. http://www.imagineschools.com/
  19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Lie
  20. http://www.harmonyparent.com/charterschools/tag/bill-gates/
  21. http://www.fethullahgulen.org/press-room/columns/3609-they-wont-believe.html