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Soft sell

Back to School | Tax-funded charter schools founded by Turkish Muslims are trying to practice but not preach

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

ALBUQUERQUE-A sign outside the Albuquerque School of Excellence in New Mexico proclaims, "College ready, Career ready, Life ready." The ASE building is a former Safeway, freshly painted neon orange and yellow. Inside, Chinese dragons, colorful butterflies, and self-portraits adorn the bright blue, yellow, and red halls, remnants of a recent art show.

Many of the charter school's 214 K-8 students are members of minorities from the neighborhood, drawn by its academic rigor and focus on science and math. One of its eighth-graders won first place in the 2011 New Mexico Science and Engineering Fair. Last school year, ASE's first, included celebrations for Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo. It plans to add a high school and uses a science-oriented curriculum popular in Texas public schools.

ASE parents seem pleased. Lewanna Ramsey, the mom of an eighth-grader and a special-needs sixth-grader at ASE, says she appreciates principal Ahmet Cetinkaya's open-door policy. "At a public school," she says, "you hardly ever see the principal or other staff. Here, I'm always in Mr. Cetinkaya's office."

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But there's a bit more to the story. ASE is tied to sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish Muslim cleric now living in rural Pennsylvania. "Gulen," according to Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, "is probably the most subtle and capable Islamist now active." His millions of followers around the world promote his moderate brand of Islam partly through their businesses, cultural foundations, and media but primarily through schools and colleges-several hundred on five continents. Ask Cetinkaya about ASE's relationship to Gulen and he shifts in his chair and looks away. He and three of his teachers are from Turkey.

In the United States, Gulen's supporters have in the last decade founded about 120 charter schools in 25 states. Many work with low-income students and have an impressive reputation for academics, especially in science and math. Gulen charter schools combined draw perhaps 35,000 students and hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

About 10 years ago in Texas a group of Turkish businessmen founded the Cosmos Foundation Inc., now the largest charter school operator in the state with 33 "Harmony"-branded schools. ASE lists Cosmos as a "partner" in its charter application with the state: Principal Cetinkaya and at least one of his teachers formerly worked for Harmony in Texas.

After Texas, the largest networks are in Ohio, where Concept Schools Inc. operates 16 Horizon Science and Noble academies (with six others in neighboring states), and California, where the Magnolia Foundation has 12 schools. Some Gulen schools are academically weak but many are impressive. The Texas High School Project, a public-private alliance that offers grants to help prepare low-income students for college, selected 13 Harmony schools for its 40-school list of "T-STEM Academies." The K-8 students at Pinnacle Academy in Oakton, Va., have collected almost two dozen medals and awards over the last two years at Virginia State Science Olympiads and other competitions, earning a meeting with President Barack Obama at his inaugural White House Science Fair last fall.

The schools have generated critical examination. A New York Times article in June detailed how the Harmony charters seem to favor local Turkish businessmen in awarding building contracts. While a large majority of Gulen charter staff and teachers are usually American, the administrators are usually Turkish. Every year the schools import several hundred male teachers from Turkey on H1-B temporary worker visas (684 in 2009, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report), making them one of the largest users of such visas in the country.

Gulen administrators claim that quality science and math teachers are hard to find, but teachers unions and some parent groups find that hard to believe. The Oklahoman quoted Jenni White, president of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, asking in May, "If Oklahoma teachers are being laid off, why are we as Oklahoma taxpayers paying people from not even inside our country to come and teach our children?"

Gulen himself came to the United States in 1998 to receive treatment for diabetes after a long career as an imam in Turkey. He had already found favor in some Western circles for preaching nonviolence, tolerance, and public service (hizmet), a message based on a moderate version of Islam called the Nur (light) movement.

In 1999 the then staunchly secular Turkish government indicted him for promoting an Islamist state, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI): Footage of Gulen appeared on Turkish television advising followers to "move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers . . . until the conditions are ripe." Supporters claimed the tapes were doctored, and Turkey's government, now led by an Islamist-sympathizing party, dropped the charges in 2006.

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