Turkey wages multimillion-dollar takedown of U.S. charters

Turkey wages multimillion-dollar takedown of U.S. charters

Gülen-linked schools suspected of funding global political movement

January 3, 2019—In recent weeks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased pressure on President Trump to extradite his political opponent, Fethullah Gülen, to Turkey from self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. But Erdoğan has been waging a less public war on Gülen and his followers for years—in an unlikely arena. In a new article for Education Next, journalist Menachem Wecker investigates Turkey’s efforts to undermine one of America’s largest charter school networks: the 100-plus schools founded by Gülen’s followers.

Gülen-linked schools in the United States, estimated to number between 120 and 200, include well-regarded charter networks such as Harmony Public Schools in Texas and Magnolia Public Schools in California. Turkey alleges that these schools, though not officially affiliated with Gülen, are funneling billions of dollars to the pro-democracy Gülenist movement gaining influence in Turkey and around the world.

Among the key insights:

Turkey’s investment to undermine charter schools. Beginning in 2015, Turkey enlisted Amsterdam & Partners, an international crisis law firm, to lobby against charter schools with alleged links to Gülen. Federal filings required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reveal that, from December 2015 to January 2018, Turkey paid the firm at least $1.25 million. They paid an additional $348,904 between November 2017 and January 2018 for Amsterdam & Partners to subcontract work to advocacy, communications, and public relations organizations.

A war waged at school board meetings. Amsterdam and his associates lobby against Gülen-linked charter schools using myriad tactics, including speaking at local school-board meetings, donating to local political campaigns, and partnering with anti-charter advocacy groups. The firm has also leveraged the existing anti-charter movement, capitalizing on the efforts of ProgressOhio and the NAACP in California to scrutinize charter performance and admission policies.

High performance—and questions about access. The Gülen-linked Harmony Public Schools, which operates 54 charters, boasts a 100 percent college-acceptance rate, and was a finalist for the 2017 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, awarded to the nation’s top performing charter-school system. However, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found in 2014 that students with disabilities and English language learners were underrepresented at Harmony Public Schools, leading the charter operator to revise admissions and enrollment.

Alleged financial misdeeds. In 2014, the Office of the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector found that the Dove Charter School had used $175,000 from public funds to sponsor an out-of-state event which did not appear to have a legitimate school purpose or benefit the students. In 2017, CBS News reported that the FBI is investigating whether Gülen supporters are skimming money from charter schools in the United States.

Robert Amsterdam, founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners, compares the Gülenist movement to the Italian Mafia and Russian crime rings, adding “we need to wake up before this guy is teaching a million American students.” But Fatih Ay, chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools, is unfazed, writing, “We have experienced tremendous success where it counts most: in the difference we make in the lives of Texas schoolchildren. This latest volley of attacks is as much puzzling as it is unprecedented.”

To receive an embargoed copy of “Turkey’s Fight Against U.S. Charters: An autocrat declares war on high-performing American schools” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at jackie.kerstetter@educationnext.org. The article will be available Tuesday, January 8 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 27, 2019.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.

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