The attempted coup in Turkey last month refocused attention on a Turkish dissident currently living in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania, an imam named Fethullah Gulen who is suspected of having financial ties to charter schools across the United States.
Just this week, a Turkish court issued an arrest warrant for Gulen. Although he has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, Gulen's critics claim he’s leading a movement to undermine the current Turkish government, a movement they say is funded in part by a network of about 150 charter schools.
The charter schools share characteristics, such as being run by Turkish immigrants. There are six of them in northern New Jersey and four in upstate New York. The FBI and other federal agencies are investigating charter schools in Ohio and Illinois with possible links to Gulen and a Georgia audit found found three schools engaged in bid-rigging to vendors with ties to him.
The New York charters were audited by the state comptroller in 2013. The office cited problems with their bidding processes. The audit of the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter found the school leased its building in a way that netted millions of dollars for a New Jersey company with ties to Turkey, Apple Educational Services. In the end, the company sold the building to the Buffalo charter.
The director of Buffalo Academy of Science, Mucahit Polat, argued the deal was legal and sound. Polat, who came to the U.S. from Istanbul to study, also said there was nothing nefarious about Turkish immigrants getting involved in charter schools. Turks who come here for an education, he said, often work in the education field and network.
When asked about his views on Gulen, Polat called him a "great scholar." He strongly denied any direct involvement with the man or his movement. Rather, he explained, many educated Turkish immigrants support Gulen because he preaches about the importance of education, science and pluralism.
"Since those ideas are really great to admire, when you ask those people who are in education they’ll say 'I really like his ideas,'" Polat said. "But that’s kind of a social setting it’s not kind of a cult setting."
Gulen's movement espouses religious tolerance, science and high regard for education. The charter schools often have science themes. They enroll tens of thousands of students nationally and receive hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds.
They also share particular characteristics, according to Robert Amsterdam, an attorney who is counsel to Turkey's government in a civil lawsuit against Gulen accusing him of human rights abuses in Turkey.
"They all have majority Turkish board members," he said. "Number two, they only take foreign teachers from Turkey. Number three, around 75 percent of all vendors are Turkish, and normally have strong ties to Gulen."
He said the suspicion is that school staff and related vendors pay Gulen's movement from their salaries and business deals.
Polat said his school has hired teachers from Turkey, but only for positions in science and math which, he said, were harder to fill with American teachers. He said he currently has just one Turkish teacher, who teaches Turkish.
The other charters in Syracuse, Utica and Rochester also hired many teachers from Turkey over the years, according to documents obtained by New York State United Teachers. Spokesman Carl Korn called this a violation of visa rules.
"The visa program is supposed to be used to fill jobs that cannot be filled by American workers," he said. "They’re filling positions for biology teachers, physical education teachers, English teachers, guidance counselors, with Turkish nationals."
Both Korn and Amsterdam, the counsel for Turkey, said the pattern of financial problems cited in various state audits of the schools, and the federal investigation in the Midwest, prove charter schools need more oversight.
"The U.S. charter school industry is a perfect host for this kind of thing because the whole aspect of charter schools is lack of regulation," said Amsterdam. "So if you’re a foreign entity like Mr. Gulen and you’re in need of funding they see it as a great source."
But Andrea Rogers, New York State Director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, called that a "smear campaign" by opponents of charters.
"The authorizers see the audits and if there was any evidence of wrongdoing, they would have been all over it," she stated.
Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Education, which authorized the four charters upstate, said his agency had "worked extensively" with them following the comptroller's 2013 audits.
"The department requires all charter schools that have audit findings to adopt a corrective action plan to fully implement the audit’s recommendations" he said, adding that the agency will continue to monitor them.