Investigation: Charter school leaders, founders linked to controversial Turkish cleric
A group of charter schools that arose from North Jersey’s Turkish community is rapidly growing in the state, with seven schools collecting more than $60 million in taxpayer money last year alone to fund their growth.
Now, an investigation by The Record and NorthJersey.com shows that some founders and leaders of the schools have close ties to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the controversial Islamic cleric accused of working to overthrow the government in his native Turkey last summer. Gulen is fighting extradition demands as he lives in a secluded compound in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, about 10 miles from the New Jersey border.
The 75-year-old Gulen, in his writings and public comments, espouses a modern Islamic society that embraces education, interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Sympathy for the movement is strong among key figures who pioneered the North Jersey charter schools.
Some belong to Turkish émigré groups that tout the cleric's teachings. There are also political donors who collectively have furnished hundreds of thousands in donations to U.S. office holders while the North Jersey charter schools in general have been adept at wooing state and local government officials with trips to Turkey and, in some cases, jobs.
Records show the charter schools in North Jersey also have 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.
In Turkey’s capital of Ankara, President Recep Erdogan has purged thousands of suspected "Gulenists" from the government and is pressing the Trump administration to break with former President Barack Obama and immediately dislodge the cleric and send him home to stand trial as a domestic terrorist who they claim was behind the July 2016 coup attempt.
Officials in the turbulent Turkish republic have maintained Gulen is leveraging a network of more than 100 charter schools nationwide and U.S. tax dollars to support revolution back home that would put his followers in power.
“It’s clear these schools were being used both to raise funds for Gulen and employ Gulen followers and teachers and basically have them tie a percent of their income back to Gulen,” said Robert Amsterdam, a London-based lawyer hired by the Turkish government who is investigating charter schools in the U.S. that he alleges are linked to Gulen.
The United States has not classified Gulen or his followers as a terrorist group, and some have characterized the cleric as an antidote to Islamic extremism. The Trump administration has not made an official policy statement about Gulen.
Gulen disavows any role in the Turkish coup or terror attacks there, and he has long denied a connection to the Turkish-led charter schools in the United States.
Leaders of the New Jersey schools interviewed for this story say their charters, spread across a dozen locations stretching from Hackensack to Somerset County, have no formal link to the reclusive preacher. They exist solely to provide good secular education for the large numbers of public school families seeking better outcomes for their children, they say.
As the international controversy around Gulen swirls, the Turkish-led schools in New Jersey continue to collect tens of millions of dollars in state financing and local tax support, public records show.
The Record's review raises key questions about state oversight of the schools even as Governor Christie – who visited three of the North Jersey locations last year – pushes to rapidly expand the charter movement across the state:
The investigation found:
A state-financed property deal involving the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology also benefited its landlord, a private group with close ties to the Gulen movement:
- That group sold the property and used the proceeds to help open a new campus in Wayne for its private boarding school that hews closely to Gulen's teachings and caters largely to students from Turkey.
- Public money, in fees and rent that could amount to millions of dollars over time, continues to flow to the charter school's new landlord, a firm with multiple ties to Turkish charter schools in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Connections run deep among people involved with the schools, Gulenist groups and Turkish charter schools elsewhere in the U.S:
- Two of the New Jersey schools, for example, have a founder who has served as a director at the New York-based Alliance for Shared Values, considered the voice of the Gulen movement in this country.
- The CEO of iLearn Schools Inc. – an Elmwood Park-based non-profit that manages four of the local charter schools – comes from a charter network in Texas that the Turkish government claims is linked to the Gulen movement.
The schools and their vendors have successfully courted prominent public-school educators and political figures.
- The state’s top charter school regulator, Harold Lee, left his post last summer for a job at iLearn.
- Security consulting contracts at four of the schools worth more than $90,000 a year are held by ex-Bergen County Sheriff Leo McGuire, who took a 10-day trip to Turkey before he left office in 2010 with his family and local Turkish nationals tied to the schools. It was paid for in part by a Gulenist group.
More than $30 million in long-term, low-interest loans have been granted by the state to benefit the Paterson charter school despite its continuing financial and academic troubles:
- In 2014, a Wall Street ratings agency downgraded the bonds issued for its expansion to junk status because the school’s revenues had fallen. Last year, Wall Street lowered its overall outlook on the bonds to “negative.”
Tracking tax dollars spent by the schools can be difficult because of loopholes in state law:
- ILearn, which is set to add a fifth charter to its chain this year, declined to answer routine requests for information about its payroll, saying that as a private contractor it is not subject to the state Open Public Records law.
- State officials said it is unclear if such charter-management organizations fall under the law, even though charters draw their funding directly from the tax-funded budgets of regular public schools.
Gulen’s followers maintain the campaign against the American charters by the Turkish government – which claims the schools are being used to further Gulen's political agenda – is part of an attempt to smear and harass Gulen supporters wherever they live.
They dismiss the idea of a political or religious conspiracy operating through them and say Gulen’s movement is about hard work, peace and leading an ethical life. The movement’s Alliance for Shared Values maintains his devotees have simply been inspired to “promote education, particularly in math and science, by starting schools to serve disadvantaged communities.”
It is clear, also, that local Turks sympathetic to Gulen have influence well beyond the charter schools and are skilled at building political capital. Civic and cultural organizations linked to Gulen are active in the community at large, holding academic competitions for students and interfaith and outreach events with politicians, law enforcement and the public.
Members of the organizations are vocal about issues that affect Turkey and have provided U.S. lawmakers and others like McGuire with trips to their homeland, including two Bergen County legislators, Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, financial disclosure forms show. Census figures show that Bergen and Passaic counties have the nation’s highest percentage of residents with Turkish ancestry among America's 3,000-plus counties. There are 5,200 in Bergen County alone.
Johnson said he visited a Gulen university and met with a group of Gulenist educators. Weinberg recalled learning about the Gulen philosophy when she traveled to the republic with Johnson in 2011. Like the former sheriff, both legislators said they paid for airfare and the Peace Islands Institute, a U.S.-based group that considers Gulen its honorary president, picked up the costs for the 2011 trip. Johnson visited again in 2014 on a trip that was paid for, in part, by the Turkic American Association, which promotes Turkish culture.
McGuire said Gulen was not discussed on what he called a “spectacular trip” in 2008. But a brochure by the Turkish Cultural Center of New Jersey about the excursion quotes him as saying: “I now have many, many more Turkish friends. It is clear that those who have read the books of Fethullah Gulen have taken his message throughout Turkey and the world to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding.”Investigation: Charter school leaders, founders linked to controversial Turkish cleric: