Sunday, February 26, 2017
Gulen charter schools in New Jersey being scrutinized
Before stakeholders and public officials push toward further expansion of charter schools in New Jersey, they should take a breath, and pause long enough to look at the rise in prominence and influence of a group of charter schools that has grown in the past decade or so out of North Jersey’s Turkish community. The saga of that growth, detailed in an investigation conducted by The Record, raises some troubling questions about the use of taxpayer money, and cries out for greater oversight from the state.
As Staff Writers Jean Rimbach, Jeff Pillets and Hannan Adely report, this still-growing collection of schools – whose founders and leaders include people with close ties to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a controversial Islamic cleric from Turkey now living in the Poconos – has been successful at wooing state and local government officials, while also engaging in troubling financial practices. The Record’s reporting reveals that the charter schools, though often successful academically, have also at times been a channel for state taxpayer money to private entities that serve the schools as landlords or vendors – in one case a Wayne boarding school that is openly Gulen inspired.
Meantime, officials in Turkey, where there has been much political upheaval lately, maintain that Gulen is leveraging a network of more than 100 charter schools across the United States, and using American tax dollars to support revolution back home and to put his followers in power. Robert Amsterdam, a London-based lawyer hired by the Turkish government to investigate the charter school links to Gulen in the United States, said that “it’s clear these schools were being used to raise funds for Gulen and employ Gulen followers and teachers and basically have them tie a percent of their income back to Gulen.”
Seven schools in the North Jersey group collected more than $60 million in taxpayer money last year alone to fund their growth. They include charter schools from Paterson to Hackensack to Somerset County. Many of the schools tout their success in teaching science and math, particularly in urban school districts, yet their financial practices and range of political involvement across the state are a huge concern at a time when Governor Christie and other politicians seek to give charters a greater footprint in the state’s educational landscape.
Indeed, among the more disturbing episodes reported about the charter schools connected to the Turkish community concerns the nexus between the Paterson Charter School for Science and Pioneer Academy, a private boarding school that recently opened a pricey new campus in Wayne. The Record found that a state-financed property deal involving the Paterson school also benefited its landlord, a private group with close ties to the Gulen movement.
As for Gulen, the 75-year-old teacher and cleric has espoused a modern Islamic society that embraces education, interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Yet Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan, has accused Gulen of working to overthrow the government and has purged thousands of Gulenists from positions of authority. Erdogan also has called for Gulen’s return to Turkey to stand trial. The United States does not classify Gulen or his followers as a terrorist group.
What is most concerning from a New Jersey perspective is the apparent ease with which non-profits, charter school leaders and private entities have been able to leverage state tax dollars, in often complicated ways, without the sort of robust transparency regarding public records, finances and payroll that is normal for those who benefit from public monies.
Charter schools, in general, often receive private sponsorship and, in return, are granted some degree of independence, but they also receive state tax dollars that otherwise go to traditional public schools. The Record’s investigation into the Turkish-led schools in New Jersey shows that more oversight of the system is needed before the state proceeds further in the charter movement.