A Fictitious Phenomenon: Gulen Charter Schools

In the last two years, a new trend has been started by some mysterious bloggers later joined by a few self-identified scholars with PhDs. They came up with a brand-new term, a totally new coinage, for the charter school world: Gulen Charter Schools. While the early-bird alarmist bloggers tried to attract people’s attention to those schools by claiming that Fethullah Gulen involved in the foundation and administration of some US charter schools, others – specifically the academics – based their arguments on these blogs as if the latter were highly credible sources. Moreover, in an effort to make their claims look authentic alarmist bloggers employed Charter Schools’ open-to-public data, such as tax returns and H1B visa applications which indeed have been scrutinized by local and federal government agencies many times for various procedural reasons.

The question here is what charter schools are and in what sense they could be compared with the schools founded throughout the world by the people inspired by Fethullah Gulen. 

According to;

Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. 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. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school's contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor-- usually a state or local school board-- to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them and the public that funds them. also provides some other definitions of charter schools from various independent sources such as this one:

Charter schools are semi-autonomous public schools, founded by educators, parents, community groups or private organizations that operate under a written contract with a state, district or other entity. This contract, or charter, details how the school will be organized and managed, what students will be taught and expected to achieve, and how success will be measured. Many charter schools enjoy freedom from rules and regulations affecting other public schools, as long as they continue to meet the terms of their charters. Charter schools can be closed for failing to satisfy these terms. ("Charter Schools Description", Education Commission of the States, 2005)

These definitions clearly state that charter schools are public institutions owned by the public, operated for the sake of public by using public money, and responsible to the institutions representing the public. They have to be transparent – as dictated by the laws in the US – open to public by providing equal opportunity of enrollment to anyone legally eligible for the application to the school, cannot discriminate even by requiring certain test scores as a requirement for enrollment. Charter schools are operated by contractors for a specified term and the contract could be renewed based on the schools’ performance. They are accountable for their academic and fiscal performances to the institution (state, local school board etc) who granted them this privilege in the name of public. This means the contractors do not really own the schools but operate them for a pre-arranged time period. Then, if the contract is renewed they are good to go; but if not, it turns into a regular, government operated public school overnight. 

Gulen Charter Schools?

Academics studying Gulen-inspired schools founded throughout the world by the people who were inspired by Fethullah Gulen’s teachings have coined the term Gulen Schools (or Gulen-inspired schools/institutions) for convenience purposes (see Ebaugh, 2010, p. 96). Although Fethullah Gulen does not accept any affiliation to his name, whether it is people or institutions, it has been useful to call them Gulen Schools. Dr. Thomas Michel describes Gulen Schools as follows:
[T]he schools inspired by Gülen’s educational understanding are not religious or Islamic. Instead, they are secular private schools inspected by state authorities and sponsored by parents and entrepreneurs. They follow secular, state-prescribed curricula and internationally recognized programs. (Michel, 2006, p. 111)
Gulen-inspired schools, unlike charter schools, are private schools financed by tuition fees and donations of local businessmen who pledged their support at school fundraisers that are held on yearly basis. They are open to public as long as students could pay the tuition and at the same time pass a certain qualification test held either by the school itself or – in Turkish case – by the state. For those who are well qualified without proper financial support, there are scholarships such as tuition waivers and even stipends. Moreover, these private schools are predominantly boarding schools where there usually is no option other than living in the dormitories under the tutelage of school administration. 

The business circles of the movement are the main sponsors of these schools, supporting them financially until they are able to raise their own revenues through school fees. In each country, the community works in co-operation with the local authorities, who often provide logistical assistance and supervise the curriculum:
Some schools are completely built and funded by businessmen and industrialists, while some are joint ventures between the state and the trusts. The state provides the building, electricity, water, etc., and the trusts provide teaching, the teaching staff, and all educational materials and resources.
Some are eventually completely funded by student fees. They work as non-profitable companies or trusts, that is, all the income incurred goes back to the students again as educational investment (new teaching materials and resources such as books, computers, software; and facilities such as labs, gyms, hostels, residence halls, etc).
Ruth Woodhall says, “Every school has its own independent accountants and accountancy system. They are all accountable to the local authorities (the state) and the trust's inspectors, and comply with the state and international law.”[1] Ian G. Williams adds that the schools do receive summary and unpredicted inspections.[2] On the other hand, a qualitative field research about Kenya's Gülen-inspired schools suggests that the schools have been functioning not only as a secular alternative to religious, Christian missionary schools and Islamic schools, but also as barriers to potential ethno-religious conflict between Kenya's local Christian tribes and its politically empowering Muslim minority.[3]
Charter schools allegedly affiliated to Fethullah Gulen have none of the above-mentioned characteristics that Gulen-inspired schools display. They are neither founded as private institutions, nor funded by private entrepreneurs and they are not allowed to charge any sort of tuition fee let alone putting enrollment requirements to select students that have promising academic potential. They don’t administer any entrance or qualification test. Unlike Gulen-inspired schools, charter schools have almost no donations from generous businessmen. If there is any donation, it probably comes from certain foundations like Dell Foundation or Gates Foundation within the scope of a larger project or initiative such as T-STEM. The budget of a charter school largely consists of the state money that is paid annually to each and every charter school in the nation. Charter schools also may not make zip code distinction as public schools and more than half of their students, statistics show that, come from disadvantaged areas. There is also no boarding school option as in the example of Gulen-inspired schools. Charter schools are day schools; therefore there are no dormitories that students can stay overnight.   

Here remains a question: Is there any Gulen-inspired school in the sense that I have described above? I can say “Yes,” this question. There are indeed handful Gulen-inspired private schools in the United States. One of them is the Pinnacle Academy of Northern Virginia (DC metropolitan area). Lately they have attracted the attention of the national and international media after President Obama hosted Inaugural White House Science Fair. Pinnacle team developed a digital and three-dimensional model of “Yeshilist,” an imaginary city that anticipates the accommodation needs of citizens who lose their homes during an earthquake and they introduced their project to President Obama at the White House.

Another Gulen-inspired school is Brooklyn Amity School, a well-known school by its achievements at some of the top academic competitions such as Science Olympiad, Math Contests, Robotics Competitions, Art Contests, and Future City Engineering competition.
I guess there are five or six Gulen-inspired schools in the US and those schools have no connection with some other charter schools. As I stated in my article entitled Gulen Charter Schools, the fact that some people inspired by Fethullah Gulen work for a charter school does not necessarily make this school a Gulen Charter School.  

Finally, I need to reiterate the fact that we should definitely make a distinction and put some space between Gulen-inspired schools and the non-existent concept of Gulen Charter Schools mistakenly claimed by some alarmist bloggers. I have described the nature of Gulen-inspired schools and their main differences from US charter schools. I hope self-proclaimed academics won’t fall into the trap of mistakenly-coined words again.

[1] Ruth Woodhall, “Organizing the Organization, Educating the Educators: An Examination of Fethullah Gulen’s Teaching and the Membership of the Movement, delivered during "Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gulen Movement in Thought and Practice" conference, Rice University, 12-13 November, 2005, pp.3-4
[2] Ian G. Williams, “An Absent Influence? The Nurcu/Fetullah Gulen Movements in Turkish Islam and Their Potential Influence upon European Islam and Global Education”, delivered during "Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gulen Movement in Thought and Practice" conference, Rice University, 12-13 November, 2005, pp.8.

[3] Mehmet Kalyoncu, “Gulen-inspired Schools in the East Africa: Secular Alternative in Kenya and Pragmatist Approach to Development in Uganda”, delivered during "Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gulen Movement" conference on November 14-15, 2008, Georgetown University, p.1