It’s an unusual case of collateral damage, but the suppression of domestic political opposition, independent media, and open protest in Turkey by President Tayyip Erdo?an and his attacks on Fethullah Gülen, a onetime ally now living in political exile in a small Pennsylvania town 90 miles north of Philadelphia, has spilled over to a Texas-based public charter school.
In the United States, San Antonio could be the next battle field.
“The level of freedom and democracy over the last few years is now being eroded,” said Mehmet Nalcaci, superintendent of the School of Science and Technology charter network. “Erdo?an operates like a dictator, fearful of losing both power and influence. Thousands of Turks face criminal charges for insulting Erdo?an. They have lost their jobs and been sent to prison.”
Erdo?an seems to be taking a page from his domestic political playbook, trying to strong-arm educational institutions in the United States. The schools under fire are tied to Gülen, a reclusive preacher and former Imam who fled Turkey in 1999. Gülen now resides in a compound in the Poconos. He rarely gives interviews and has denied all ties to public charter schools.
The network of nearly 120 charter schools, including the Harmony Public Schools based in Houston, have dealt with mounting interference from the Turkish government through Canadian attorney Robert Amsterdam. Amsterdam defended the Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who also lives in exile now, counseled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and is currently part of Kim Dotcom’s legal team.
Initially, Amsterdam & Partners served the Harmony schools with an open records request, followed by a complaint to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), requesting an investigation into misconduct and mismanagement. Magnolia Schools, a Gülenist network in California, are also being targeted.
San Antonio’s School of Science and Technology (SST) has found itself in the crossfire after being served with a 90-item public records request on November 17. Harmony received the same request, and estimated that compliance would cost $4.5 million. While the Turkish government reduced the request, it will still cost the school approximately $700,000 to comply.
“Harmony will cooperate with the TEA, as it always has, and will respond to any matters requiring a response. Harmony is addressing the open records requests in accordance with the requirements of state law,” said Joe Hoffer, whose firm Schulman, Lopez, Hoffer & Adelstein serves as general counsel for Harmony, SST, and more than 120 other charter schools.
SST and Harmony are independent entities whose “ties are cultural and cooperative, not legal or financial,” according to Hoffer. There has been no complaint filed by the Turkish government against SST.
Some have suggested that Erdo?an’s reason for targeting these schools is the number of opposition voters associated with them. The schools under attack are predominantly administrated and largely staffed by Turkish-American dual citizens, many of whom vote for Erdo?an’s opponents.
“What we believe is motivating them includes silencing and intimidating a population of Turkish nationals and U.S. citizens of Turkish descent (with family in Turkey and abroad) who cherish free speech, freedom of the press, opportunity, and tolerance,” Hoffer said. “Sadly, these inalienable rights and virtues are languishing in Turkey if they are even still to be found.”
Others suggest that ties to Gülen are the main reason for the Turkish interference. As anti-intellectualism associated with Turkey’s fundamentalist Islam continues to grow, Gülen’s pro-science Hanafi Islam poses a stark contrast to Erdo?an’s anti-West, fundamentalist ideology.
“Erdo?an has relentlessly squelched all opposition in Turkey, even shutting down websites and social media that did not support him. However, Erdo?an cannot control reports and investigations outside of Turkey and he is afraid,” Nalcaci said. Erdo?an has accused Gülen of raising a “fifth column” in concert with foreign powers, a phrase used by Spain’s Franco regime to suggest a hidden cache of anti-government sympathizers within the borders.
While his 2000 in absentia indictment and 2008 acquittal were centered around remarks that appeared to support an Islamic state, Gülen claims they were taken out of context. He openly teaches that faithful Muslims should build schools instead of mosques and embrace science, multi-party democracy, and interfaith dialogue, in particular with Christians and Jews, but also with atheists, agnostics, and others.
The STEM-intensive Gülenist schools focus mainly on underserved populations and have produced remarkable results. SST has a 100% graduation rate with 75% going on to four-year universities.
Despite fairly recognizable trademarks — STEM focus, Turkish administration, and even identical uniforms in some cases — schools tend to deny their association with Gülen as avidly as he denies his association with them. Schools in both the Harmony and SST networks are included on most lists of Gülen schools.
“SST has no ties with Gülen,” said Nalcaci, “SST opened its doors ten years ago as a Texas public charter school, fulfilling all the requirements of the State of Texas and continuing to operate under the requirements of TEA. SST has never communicated with Gülen nor has Gülen communicated with SST. We are a Texas public school.”
In 2012, a 60 Minutes investigation suggested that schools were reluctant to talk about associating or even sympathizing with Gülen because school leaders feared anti-Islamic sentiment.
Others suggest that this denial, along with Gülen’s own reclusiveness, indicates a hidden agenda.
If that is indeed the case, it remains completely invisible: neither Harmony nor SST students take religious education classes and there is no overt religious insignia hanging in either school.
“I’ve kept my ear to the ground, and I’ve never heard a parent report any Muslim influence at any of these schools. Their focus is on rigorous STEM education. Based on the number of families choosing to send their children to these schools, it appears they are doing a good job,” said Inga Cotton, school partnership analyst with Families Empowered.
Families Empowered has a data-sharing relationship with Harmony schools, meaning that Harmony shares its enrollment and waitlist information with Families Empowered.
While parents and taxpayers should have no more concern about the religious affiliation of Gülenist charter school leadership than they do about the heavy religious presence in other charters, these latest allegations do bring a separate issue to the forefront. The Harmony schools network faced heavy criticism for bidding and hiring practices in 2010 and again for enrollment procedures in 2014.
The 2010 investigation revealed that contracts awarded to Gülen-affiliated contractors used state funds to pay for Turkish teachers’ immigration fees. The network has since taken steps to alleviate concerns of nepotism and mismanagement. In 2014 Harmony agreed to change their admissions procedures to comply with requirements for public school admissions. Still, Harmony is upheld by charter opponents as an example of how charters can choose not to operate in the public interest with less formal accountability than traditional public schools.
SST, which has not been subject to federal investigation, is intent on cooperating and maintaining transparency and has thus far operated above-board, according Nalcaci.
“SST is in good standing with the TEA and our students’ achievements show that we have a history of providing high-quality STEM education to primarily economically disadvantaged children,” Nalcaci said. “Our records and doors have always been open to parents and the State.”
San Antonio has seen its fair share of ISD boards slapped with state intervention over financial mismanagement. That, of course, would be the point, according to charter opponents. Conservators and boards of managers are not a sign that a system is succeeding, but rather a sign that it will not be allowed to fail in private.
Top image: The President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdo?an (second from left), speaks during a forum in Istanbul, Turkey on February 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of the United Nations.