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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Beware Xenophobia with Embattled Gulen Charters

On Sunday, the Akron Beacon Journal reported on some disturbing trends with several Charter Schools run by an organization closely tied with the the Gulen movement out of Turkey -- a movement that is as complicated as one would expect from the Middle East. There are those who say that the Gulen movement promotes an interfaith collaboration that can help temper religious strife in a region riven with it. In fact, two professors of religion (one at Temple University and one at the the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) said this of the movement:
Our own research, based on years of familiarity with the writings of G├╝len, and associations with Turkish businessmen, scientists, and civic leaders, suggests ... these schools have consistently promoted good learning and citizenship, and the Hizmet movement is to date an evidently admirable civil society organization to build bridges between religious communities and to provide direct service on behalf of the common good.
Yet the movement was booted from its native Turkey by the current government for being accused of trying to set up an Islamist state in Turkey. Or were they booted because they were too politically powerful for the current ruling class, not unlike how other states have exiled or imprisoned dissidents throughout the millenia?

Critics have charged the movement with being more like a cult, adhering blindly to Gulen's message.

So is the Gulen Movement a moderate form of Islam that can counterbalance the more strident voices in the religion? Or is it a Heaven's Gate type of cult?

I don't know. But the answer is much more complicated than many folks who are now, emboldened by the Beacon story, going after the Gulen schools in Ohio for, among other things, using lots of Turkish teachers in the classroom. The Vindicator, in an I-told-you-so editorial, said that they had been warning for years that "there is no way for the state of Ohio to prevent non-Christian organizations from seeking to establish charters." Like that was the biggest problem the Beacon Journal reported, never mind the numerous non-religious irregularities it uncovered.

Some have even said that the state should now make it illegal to have non-citizens on Charter School boards or even teach in classrooms.

I have to admit that I've been wary of this story because I fear it will turn into a xenophobic attack on a not-so-well-understood group.

And I think foreigners can add incredible richness to our schools.

It would be incredibly difficult for the Campus International School in Cleveland to find the four Mandarin teachers they currently have if they couldn't recruit in China. I just spent two weeks in Chinese schools that couldn't wait to bring over American teachers to teach in their schools and send their teachers to America in exchange. What better way to foster a cooperative, peaceful world than the free exchange of intellectual capital?

If the Sorbonne wanted to set up an experimental French language school in Columbus, would we want to prevent that? Or how about bringing over an education expert from Oxford or Cambridge to help run a new, innovative school in Dayton? Would we really not want them educating our kids because they spoke a weird form of English? Of course not.

My senior year of High School, Gareth Morrell, who was the chorus master at the Cleveland Orchestra at the time and a British citizen, came in and taught some of our choral classes. Would we want to deprive children of that experience?

That's why we must practice restraint and focus on the numerous irregularities at the Gulen schools that the Beacon pointed out that have little to do with the heritage of the founders and more to do with their ethical makeup. Things such as test alterations (which caused so much consternation for lawmakers about Columbus City Schools), or that the teachers they are bringing over aren't qualified to teach, or that the Speaker of the House in-waiting Cliff Rosenberger was wined and dined by this group, especially since current Speaker Bill Batchelder has been notoriously in the pocket of American citizen and far greater taxpayer Charter School scofflaw David Brennan (who's made more than $1 billion running poorly performing Charter Schools since 1998, dwarfing the amount spent on Gulen Schools by magnitudes of 10), or that the Gulen Schools' spokesman won't answer questions.

Those are outrages. The fact that they are being committed by Turkish, or Muslim men is less of a concern for me. What concerns me much more is that they are being committed at all.

In short, if you are as concerned about these irregularities at Gulen Schools as I am, then please do your best to avoid tapping into the public's inherent xenophobia and distrust of all things Islam and foreign. There's plenty to go after these schools for without bringing their religion or nationality into it.

For I fear if we do give in to our xenophobic inclinations, we will miss the real scandal -- that taxpayer money is once again being spent on Charter Schools that, regardless of religious or national affiliation are doing a really poor job educating Ohio's children and instead enriching people who's primary interest in education is making money, not better educated citizens. That, my friends, is a scandal far more egregious than having a few foreign nationals sitting on some Charter School boards.