They have generic, forward-sounding names like Horizon Science Academy, Pioneer Charter School of Science and Beehive Science & Technology Academy.
Quietly established over the past decade by a loosely affiliated group of Turkish-American educators, these 100 or so publicly funded charter schools in 25 states are often among the top-performing public schools in their towns.
The schools educate as many as 35,000 students — taken together they'd make up the largest charter school network in the USA — and have imported thousands of Turkish educators over the past decade.
But the success of the schools at times has been clouded by nagging questions about what ties the schools may have to a reclusive Muslim leader in his late 60s living in exile in ruralPennsylvania.
Described by turns as a moderate Turkish nationalist, a peacemaker and "contemporary Islam's Billy Graham," Fethullah Gülen has long pushed for Islam to occupy a more central role in Turkish society. Followers of the so-called Gülen Movement operate an "education, media and business network" in more than 100 countries, says University of Oregonsociologist Joshua Hendrick.
Top administrators say they have no official ties to Gülen. And Gülen himself denies any connection to the schools. Still, documents available at various foundation websites and in federal forms required of non-profit groups show that virtually all of the schools have opened or operate with the aid of Gülen-inspired "dialogue" groups, local non-profits that promote Turkish culture. In one case, the Ohio-based Horizon Science Academy of Springfield in 2005 signed a five-year building lease with the parent organization of Chicago's Niagara Foundation, which promotes Gülen's philosophy of "peace, mutual respect, the culture of coexistence." Gülen is the foundation's honorary president. In many cases, charter school board members also serve as dialogue group leaders.
Education officials who are familiar with them say the schools aren't trying to proselytize for Gülen's vision of Turkey. While Turkish language and culture are often offered in the curriculum, there's no evidence the schools teach Islam.
Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, sees no evidence of an "active network. What I do see is a really impressive group of educators."
The Turkish-affiliated schools focus on math and science and often appear as top scorers on standardized tests. Still, lawmakers, researchers and parents are beginning to put the schools under the microscope for hiring practices — they import hundreds of teachers from Turkey each year — and for steps they take to keep their academic profile high.
The schools' unacknowledged ties to Gülen, they say, mock public schools' spirit of transparency.
"That's what I was always asking for," says Kelly Wayment, a former board member and parent at Beehive Science & Technology Academy in Holladay, Utah. He has pressed for more than a year to get the school to acknowledge ties to Gülen. "I said, 'Parents have a right to know.' "
Wayment says Beehive removed him from the board last year after he began investigating the decision to fire a popular Spanish teacher, saying it was based on a single classroom visit by the Tustin, Calif.-based Accord Institute of Education Research, an education services company with ties to a chain of California charter schools inspired by Gülen. He complained to Utah state Rep. Jim Dunnigan, a Republican lawmaker, who launched an audit of charter school governance — the audit is ongoing.
But Beehive's Karlene Welker says Wayment "removed himself (from the board) by pulling his students out of the school."
Utah's State Charter School Board launched an investigation last year after American teachers complained that Turkish colleagues got hiring and promotion preferences.
The charter school board looked into Beehive's ties to Islam and found them "circumstantial," but a financial probe found that the school was $337,000 in the red — and that Accord officials had loaned it thousands. The board last April revoked its charter, but in June voted to keep the school open on probation.
Dunnigan, the state lawmaker who requested the legislative audit, says the financial details, such as personal loans and public funds spent recruiting overseas faculty, are what concern him. "When they're in such financial difficulty, should they spend $53,000 to bring these people over from another country?"
But questions about hiring and academics also have arisen in Arizona, where Daisy Education Corp. runs five schools and has received certifications for 120 H-1B visas for foreign teachers since 2002, records show. In Texas, the Cosmos Foundation has filed 1,157 H1-B applications since 2001. It operates 25 Harmony schools statewide. Since 2001, Harmony has imported 731 employees using H-1Bs, surpassing all other secondary education providers nationwide. Parents last year also accused one Harmony school of "pushing out" underperforming students — a charge the Texas Education Agency confirmed.
Ed Fuller, a University of Texas-Austin researcher, found that Harmony schools throughout Texas had an "extraordinarily high" student attrition rate of about 50% for students in grades six through eight.
"It's not hard to be 'exemplary' if you lose all the kids who aren't performing," Fuller says.
Crossing the line?
At minimum, the rapid growth of the Turkish-affiliated schools shows how the freewheeling world of charter schools has changed the face of K-12 education in the USA.
In most cases, charters are loosely regulated in exchange for improved performance. A few schools are affiliated with religious groups or offer programs that others can't. But in several cases, a school's orientation has forced it to show that it's not crossing lines and endorsing religion. Examples:
•Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a Minnesota charter school authorized by Islamic Relief USA, a Virginia-based aid group. In 2008, the school ran afoul of state officials who said having teachers take part in voluntary Friday prayers could give students the impression that the school endorsed Islam.
•Sacramento City Unified School District in California, which for 12 years has fought a lawsuit that says the city's Waldorf schools are based on the religious beliefs of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
Whether such schools continue to grow is no small question, since President Obama has made charter school expansion a priority.
While the Turkish-affiliated schools disavow any connection to the Gülen Movement, Gülen himself maintains in legal filings that he's the inspiration behind their growth. But William Martin of Rice University in Houston says educators' assertions of "no organic connection" to Gülen are accurate.
Nonetheless, he says their efforts to minimize ties to Gülen, likely from fear of being branded Islamists, bring "unnecessary and probably counterproductive" suspicion. "I do not think they are a sinister organization."
In an e-mail interview, Mehmet Argin, principal of Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy, says his school's parent corporation, Daisy Education Corp., "has no legal or organic ties" with other schools. He cautions against linking charter schools founded by Turkish-Americans directly to the Gülen Movement "just because Turkish-Americans may be inspired by Mr. Gülen."
In an e-mail interview, Gülen denied any direct connection to these schools, rejecting the notion that there is a "Gülen Movement," but acknowledging there may be educators now in U.S. schools who have listened to his philosophy. "I have no relation with any institution in the form of ownership, board membership or any similar kind," he said.
A 'third force'
Gülen has pushed for more dialogue between the Western and Muslim worlds, yet he is a controversial figure in Turkey.
The University of Oregon's Hendrick, whose writings explore the Gülen Movement, calls him "Turkey's most famous religious personality." His movement is considered the nation's "third force" alongside the military and Turkey's ruling Adalet ve Kalkýnma Partisi, or AKP Party.
In 1999, after traveling to the USA for medical treatment, Gülen was charged in Turkey with trying to create an Islamic state. Since then he has remained in Pennsylvania. After the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in 2007 denied his bid for a visa as an "alien of extraordinary ability in education," Gülen sued, saying his followers "had established more than 600 educational institutions" worldwide. He eventually prevailed, earning a green card in 2008. But Turkish educators in the USA continue to disavow their ties.
"Gülen is both the reason behind his schools, and he has nothing whatsoever to do with them," Hendrick says.