March 11, 2013

Proposed Bangor charter school linked to Turkish imam

But Maine's commission rejected the Bangor plan over financial issues, its chairwoman says.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 3)

After further investigation and thousands of interviews, the confidential cable stated, consular officials "complied a substantial list of organizations that seem in some way affiliated with Gulen" including "over thirty science academies (set up as charter schools) in the U.S." and 22 educational consultancies and foundations in the U.S..

Visa applicants the consular staff believed to be affiliated with Gulen's movement were "generally evasive about the purpose of their travel to the United States and usually denying knowing or wanting to visit Gulen when questioned directly" though many later reversed themselves on the latter point after "very direct questioning."

Most were unable to provide a straightforward answer as to the source of their travel funds. "While on the surface a benign humanitarian movement," the cable said, "the ubiquitous evasiveness of Gulen-ist applicants -- coupled with what appears to be a deliberate management of applicant profiles over several years -- leaves Consular officers uneasy, an uneasiness echoed within Turkey by those familiar with the Gulen-ists."

More recently, Gulen-linked charter schools in other states have been the subject of media attention.

A New York Times investigation in June 2011 estimated Gulen followers had helped start 120 charter schools in 25 states, and raised "questions about whether, ultimately (its Texas charter schools) are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement -- by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture."

In 2012, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the FBI and the U.S. departments of Labor and Education were investigating Philadelphia's Truebright Science Academy over "whether some Turkish charter school employees are required to kick back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by Gulen" and possible abuse of the H1-B visa program, "which has allowed hundreds of Turkish teachers, administrators and other staffers to work in charter schools."

Hendrick said the movement first got involved in education by opening private schools abroad and has gotten into trouble by applying the same hiring and contracting policies it used in its private operations to charter schools, where taxpayer funding brings increased public scrutiny. For instance, the practice of recruiting teachers from Turkey has drawn fire because the average H1-B visa costs between $600 and $1,500 to sponsor, a difficult expense to justify to taxpayers.

"Over the past several years, if you look at a list of the top 10 school systems in the country in terms of applying for foreign worker visas, the majority are Gulen schools," he said. "If you do the math, this is a significant portion of their operating budget."

A 'HOPEFUL ASPECT OF ISLAM'

Martin of Rice University said the Gulen movement is a constructive force, and not just for Texas education.

"I'm in dialogue with them because I think there's a really good chance that they represent the most hopeful aspect of Islam in the world, and on the chance that that's the case, I want to encourage that," he said.

Keschl said his experiences with the Gulen-sponsored cultural trip to Turkey also boosted his confidence in the good intentions of the cleric's followers in Maine.

"You can come up with all sorts of conspiracies all over the place if you want to, but in my view there is certainly all sorts of political things bouncing back and forth between those who oppose Gulen and those who don't," Keschl said. "I appreciated the ideals that were expressed to me in setting up the charter schools and I agree that education is very important for both industrial development and good government. ... I felt them to be very open and honest and wanting to strengthen ties, both cultural and economic, to the U.S.

"Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think I can easily have the wool pulled over my eyes," he said.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. Feb. 19 to correctly identify the Gulen-linked schools listed on an archived website.

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