Schools instead of Minarets: The Gulen Movement and Harmony Charter Schools
There are a total of about 130 charter schools like Harmony in 26 states. Together they form the largest collection of charter schools in the country. Here’s what’s curious: they’re founded and run by immigrant businessmen and academics from Turkey. Why are they building public schools here?
I had previously not read anything about Fethullah Gulen, or the Harmony Charter School network. The schools have a 36 campus presence in Texas, where the schools, run by charter school operator Cosmos Foundation, attracted a reported $100 million in taxpayer funds, according to a report published last year by the New York Times.
It does trouble me on its face that a foundation with religious ties is running schools at taxpayer expense. A look at the model curriculum provided on the Harmony Texas website indicates that no religious studies are included overtly. A subject titled “Character Education” drew my attention; however, it appears to be a classroom-based social skills program designed by Committee for Children, a legitimate not-for-profit focusing on issues including bullying.
The Harmony Schools are generally high-performing, with a focus on science that is a reflection of Fethullah Gulen’s teaching of building “schools, not mosques”. His Hizmet movement has no overt Islamist bent and appears focused on promoting interfaith and inter-cultural opportunities. The schools do not appear to promote any particular faith or cultural platform.
But the question remains as to whether it is appropriate for a foreign-based religious organization to establish schools funded by taxes. The Times report of last year notes that
While educating schoolchildren across Texas, the group has also nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants. The businesses include not just big contractors like TDM but also a growing assemblage of smaller vendors selling school lunches, uniforms, after-school programs, Web design, teacher training and even special education assessments.
It appears as though Cosmos is fostering a holistic approach to educational, social and economic support of a specific group. There is no evidence that tax money is directly upstreamed to the Cosmos Foundation and in any way inappropriately redirected. However, as the Times points out, the Foundation’s structure and activities raises questions as to whether public money is being used to benefit Gulen followers by giving them business and employment, and through financial arrangements with local foundations which directly “promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.”
According to Eurasianet, the 30-odd Gulen schools in the greater Istanbul area are run in close accordance with the public school curriculum, while similarly emphasizing high achievement. The objective is stated as aiming to usher in a “golden age” of educated Muslims. I happen to think that is a very admirable objective, indeed, and one that could contribute greatly to regional stability and peace.
Harmony Texas, in response to the 60 Minutes report, published a short rebuttal statement , in which it makes the point that religion is not taught “in any form”. I cannot think of any prima facie reason to assume that public funding of the schools is a problem. Education is important, and schools are a sensitive topic. Given the large investment of public money and that the Cosmos Foundation is requesting the issuance of tax exempt Education Revenue Bonds, and considering the religious ties of the organizational structure of which Harmony is a part, heightened awareness by public officials is certainly warranted. In the interest of promoting high-achieving educational models, what works for Harmony should, in fact, be emulated by public schools. I hope that the 60 Minutes report and subsequent news articles are not followed by the hysterical anti-Muslim shrieks of dismay from the usual suspects.