School Choice & Charters

A Turkish Cleric’s Vision of Education, Through Charter Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — May 15, 2012 2 min read
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Last weekend, “60 Minutes” aired an insightful story on an influential Turkish Islamic cleric named Fethullah Gulen who has founded about 130 charter schools in 26 states in the United States.

Gulen’s name is evidently widely recognized in his home country, though he’s largely an anonymous figure here, despite the relatively wide reach of his educational model. As the story explains, Gulen’s overall philosophy would not seem to be one to rouse anxiety among culture-warriors uneasy about Islam’s place in the United States, or our country’s schools. Gulen is well known for preaching tolerance, interfaith dialogue, the importance of education—and, apparently, the importance of making money.

Some of Gulen’s schools, such as those belonging to the Harmony chain of schools in Texas, have a reputation for strong academic performance, and school officials say they have long waiting lists. His overall message to his followers, as the CBS story explains, is that “to be devout Muslims they shouldn’t build mosques; they should build schools; and not to teach religion, but science.” In sermons on the Web, Gulen has said: “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God.” The story explains that in the late 1960s, he recommended that middle-class Turks learn from the West and embrace its money-making ways: “If you don’t seek ways to be wealthy ... that is a sin in the eyes of God.”

The “60 Minutes” crew looked for Gulen in Turkey, but ended up finding him much closer to home—in Pennsylvania, where he apparently has a home, in the Pocono mountains. He did not make himself available for an interview.

The segment also explores some of the more controversial aspects of the Gulen schools, such as the accusation that teachers at the schools are arriving on visas obtained on false premises, for subjects where there is not a strong need. “60 Minutes” found that some teachers arrived on visas to teach English, not higher-need subjects like math, as backers of the schools have claimed. The program also interviews an Ohio teacher fired from one of the schools, who says that some of the schools’ employees are being asked to give back a portion of their salaries, evidently to the operators of the schools. (In the story, Gulen school officials denied that claim.) See the transcript of the show for more details. (Video of the segment is below.)

Ed Week readers will remember that the state of Tennessee recently approved a law that limits the number of workers on foreign visas who can be employed by charter schools. Readers can be the judge of whether the story on Gulen schools bolsters the case made by supporters of that law, or undermines it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.