With increased success comes increased scrutiny, Turkey's powerful Gulen movement is learning. Over the years, the movement -- founded by the charismatic Islamic theologian Fetullah Gulen, who currently resides in Pennsylvania -- has been able to build what is thought to be the largest public charter school program in the United States, with more than 120 schools across the country that receive hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. (The movement also runs a very successful schools program in Turkey.)
Lately, though, the Gulen schools in the US have been coming under increased media scrutiny, facing questions not so much about the quality of education they offer, but rather about violations of financial, legal and ethical standards. One of the first major pieces to take a hard look at how the Gulen charter schools operate came in March of last year in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which claimed that federal authorities were investigating several of the movement's schools for violating immigration laws and for forcing employees to send part of their paycheck back to Turkey.
In an article from a year ago, the New York Times took a look at several Gulen-affiliated charter schools in Texas, also suggesting that the schools are using taxpayer money to benefit the movement (known as "Hizmet" in Turkish) and businesses and vendors affiliated with it. Perhaps as a sign that the Gulen has truly hit the big time, last month 60 Minutes ran a piece looking at the movement's US charter schools, also raising questions about funny business going on in some of them (such as bringing over teachers from Turkey to teach English).
Gulen school administrators (who frequently deny their schools have any connection to the movement) have defended their institutions by pointing out to to what they say is a track record of academic excellence. Other defenders say the criticism of the schools is fueled by a wider anti-Islam bias in the US.
But in some places, Gulen schools are now in the process of actually being closed down (or having their public charters revoked, which means they would have to become private schools.) In Philadelphia, a movement school was one of three to have their charters revoked in April "based on problems with academics and administration and failing to meet state requirements, such as having 75 percent certified teachers." And, as the New York Times reports today, a Gulen school in Georgia has also recently had its charter revoked because of questions regarding its finances. As the Times further reports, an audit by the Fulton County Schools, near Atlanta, found that the Fulton Science Academy Middle School and two other Gulen-affiliated schools "improperly granted hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to businesses and groups, many of them with ties to the Gulen movement."
The Gulen charter schools program has been able to achieve its spectacular growth by staying decidedly in the shadows and keeping any questions about the movement wrapped up in a gauzy haze of vagueness. From now on, though, it appears that will no longer be a viable strategy.