by Max Brantley
New York Times reports extensively this morning about the establishment of dozens of charter schools nationwide by a close-knit group of Turkish business people and educators.
Some of the schools’ operators and founders, and many of their suppliers, are followers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.
But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.
Harmony Schools officials say they scrupulously avoid teaching about religion, and they deny any official connection to the Gulen movement. The say their goal in starting charter schools — publicly financed schools that operate independently from public school districts — has been to foster educational achievement, especially in science and math, where American students so often falter.
Local angle: At least two charter schools in Arkansas, the LISA Academy schools in Little Rock and North Little Rock, were established by leaders with Turkish backgrounds. Democratic power broker Lottie Shackelford once introduced me to a group of Turkish people she was with at a Starbucks and told me, "They even have their own school." She referred to the LISA academies. Complaints have arisen from time to time about the schools relative to treatment of staff and students based on national origin, but leaders have always defended the schools as unaffected by that and unconnected to any Turkish religious movement. Critics of the Gulen movement dispute that in websites such as these, however.