By Robert Amsterdam
Education policy is often a heated topic, but it’s not every day that the debate evokes links to a violent attempted military coup 6,000 miles away.
But that’s where we find ourselves today, as more and more details emerge regarding the extensive U.S. activities of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey blames for plotting the recent July 15-16 attempt coup.
Mr. Gülen adamantly denies his involvement in the coup. But in addition to the mounting evidence being presented by the Turkish authorities, who are requesting his extradition, there are also questions regarding Mr. Gülen’s vast network of U.S. charter schools, nine of which are located in the State of Florida.
My law firm is engaged by the Republic of Turkey to look into the problems with Gülen’s schools. These investigations have led us to Florida, where schools such as River City Science Academy in Jacksonville, Orlando Science Charter School in Orlando, and Sweetwater Branch Academcy in Gainesville, among several others, have clear ties to the organization blamed for planning the coup in Turkey.
These schools use significant amounts of their state and federal funding to pay for H1-B visas to import teachers from Turkey. In Florida alone, they have applied for an unusually high 123 visas, with each application costing between $2,000 and $4,000. Florida taxpayers have bankrolled an expensive scheme to hire instructors from abroad, often without credentials or English language skills, while local applicants are turned away.
Our investigations have found that Gülen’s Florida schools have engaged in discriminatory hiring and compensation practices, bringing in disproportionate numbers of Turkish instructors—almost always male—and paying them considerably more than their female and non-Turkish counterparts. These Gülen-affiliated foreign teachers can often be trusted to “donate” a portion of their salary (coming out of public coffers) back into Gülen’s Hizmet movement, or directed towards key politicians.
To understand how this has been allowed to continue requires a closer look at the movement’s complex overlapping network of schools and businesses.
Numerous Florida public officials at both state and federal levels have visited Gülenist schools and institutions in Turkey, with many of these trips sponsored by . From there, an intricate web of conflicting interests begins to unfold.
For example, the vice president of the Istanbul Cultural Center in Jacksonville (formerly known as Amity Cultural Center, which has funded lavish all-inclusive trips for Florida lawmakers to Turkey) is married to the founder of Blue Ocean Construction, the principal vendor for construction and renovation projects for Charter Educational Services & Resources (CES&R), the umbrella organization that operates most Gülen schools in the southeast. Blue Ocean has itself filed H1-B visas to import Turkish engineers and has received numerous lucrative contracts from Gülen schools through obscure bidding processes.
One such example is River City Science Academy (RCSA), which hired Blue Ocean for construction of a gymnasium and for classroom modification. RCSA’s landlord, oddly, sits on the Istanbul Center’s advisory board. At least three other senior Istanbul Center officials also sit as members of the board of RCSA.
River City is just one of numerous Florida charter schools operating under the Gülenist CES&R. Formerly called the Grace Institute for Educational Research and Resources, CES&R recommenced operations under its new name after a Georgia audit into Gülenist schools revealed the Grace Institute to be a sham vendor and uncovered extensive visa fraud within its affiliated institutions.
These activities continue today in Georgia, Florida, Texas, Ohio, California and numerous other states through an opaque network of schools, contractors, and lobbyists exploiting public education. On the surface, many of the schools are successful and seemingly innocuous. But underneath, the Gülenists have figured out how to manipulate the open schools movement to guide contracts toward companies they own, send these taxpayer funds out of state and out of the country, and fund their leader’s ambitions to expand influence.
It is true that there are concerns and critiques in the United States with regard to Turkey’s response to the coup. But there is also frustration in Turkey that U.S. policymakers fail to appreciate the extent of the threat to national security they so recently faced. Whatever policymakers may think about Turkey’s policies, this should not distract from what are very clear violations of U.S. laws by Gülen’s secretive schools network.
As investigations into this violent attack continue in Turkey, the State of Florida should do the same at home to answer some of these troubling questions. The Gülen movement’s operations, it is becoming clear, are a matter of not just Turkish, but American public concern.