Documentary on Gülenist schools faces veiled censorship in US

Published 30.03.2016 11:32
Updated 30.03.2016 15:22
Fethullah Gülen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania September 26, 2013 (File Photo)
Fethullah Gülen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania September 26, 2013 (File Photo)

‘Killing Ed,’ a U.S.-made documentary on charter schools that exposes corruption at schools linked to Gülenists, a group designated as a terrorist organization in Turkey, was passed over by film festivals and media in Texas

A recent documentary film on Gülenist charter schools in the United States has been ignored by local media and Texas state film festivals where the charter schools in question are located. A recent article by writer Anna Clark in the Huffington Post says though the film was well received in other states, it was "passed over by Texas' four largest film festivals and the state's media."

"Killing Ed" is about "charter schools, corruption and the Gülen Movement in America," according to the filmmakers behind the documentary. The Gülen Movement is behind FETÖ or the Gülenist Terror Organization, described as "a national threat" by the Turkish state and the entity behind a series of wrongdoings, from two coup attempts to money laundering and illegal wiretapping.

"It's very disappointing for me that the first public screening could not happen in Texas, my home state and the epicenter for this issue," Clark quotes Mark Hall, the documentary's producer and director. "A film about the worst-case scenario for privately-owned and operated schools funded by public tax dollars – one that exposes the underbelly of a charter school movement that is apparently funding a known group's interests, no less – hits a lot of nerves, which has people in power keeping their distance."

"Killing Ed" offers "a shocking, first-hand look inside the schools while revealing the corruption of those attempting to privatize public schools through education reform in America," says the documentary's official website, while describing "questionable academic labor" practices at schools operated by the Gülen Movement as the "worst-case scenario for taxpayer-funded charter schools."

Charter schools linked to Gülenists in the United States are already facing several probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in four states, although the FBI is quiet on the process of the probes, reportedly focused on shady business practices by the charter school chains run by Gülenists, allegedly the largest of their kind in the country. Clark says the Gülen Movement "receives over $500 million in taxpayer-funded revenue each year to operate charter schools in the U.S., which now number more than 150 schools (with 12 new schools applied for) enrolling 60,000 students annually." Charter schools linked to Gülenists were recently the subject of a report by an Oklahoma state auditor.

Auditor Gary Jones said in his report that Dove Charter Schools were supposed to receive financial endorsements from the Sky Foundation as a subsidiary but instead functioned in the opposite manner, with the charter school chain supporting the Sky Foundation in a breach of state regulations. According to the report, the Sky Foundation did not operate as a school sponsor, but rather as the managing nonprofit for the Dove Charter Schools, making the foundation and the schools "one and the same." "We did not find any evidence that the foundation solicited funds on behalf of the schools or donated funds to the schools. It appears that the schools were supporting [the] Sky [Foundation] instead of vice-versa," read the report. It also said Dove Science Academy paid the Sky Foundation approximately $3,182,000 in lease payments – exceeding the original purchase price of their property. In addition to suspicious money flow, the report indicates that the Sky Foundation spent public funds on out-of-state sponsorships for events that were not attended by students from Dove schools – a direct violation of charter school regulations. The report found that Dove schools redirected funds to the Sky Foundation for the purpose of obtaining loans.

U.S. media reports also point to an alleged $5 million fraud scheme to funnel federal grant money to Gülenists. A Chicago Sun-Times report, based on court records, revealed that executives from the Concept Schools Company were the masterminds of a laundering scheme to transfer federal grant money to executive-affiliated companies – with at least $20,000 alleged to have been transferred from a company account to a bank account in Turkey. A court document submitted by a special agent from the inspector general's office for the U.S. Department of Education revealed that Concept Schools directed large portions of money linked to the E-rate program – established by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to provide discounts to schools for acquiring affordable telecommunications equipment and Internet access in the U.S. – away from the charter schools to "related vendors" who paid more than $5 million to several companies linked to school executives. In another court document, the account of a former Concept Schools official showed that the company accepted bids from contractors who had "close ties" with Gülenists and rigged the grant scheme by awarding contracts to companies set up by members of the movement.

Despite their mysterious and illegal activities, Clark underscores why few have reported on the Gülenist movement: "Perhaps the reason why so few seem interested in reporting on this is that the Gülen Movement has sponsored hundreds of trips to Turkey for politicians and journalists, inciting a congressional investigation yet dampening the urgency to inform the public about a dangerous trend."

"Killing Ed" includes interviews with Sharon Higgins, an activist known for her work on charter schools, as well as Dr. Diane Ravitch, a professor of education known for her staunch opposition to charter schools. The filmmakers also interviewed Amy Warren, a former teacher at a Gülenist-run school who claimed wage and gender discrimination were prevalent in those schools, as well as Mary Addi, another former teacher who exposed problems at Gülenist schools. Addi is the wife of Mustafa Emanet, a Turkish citizen who worked at one of those schools and the man behind one of the first FBI inquiries into alleged wrongdoings at charter schools. Emanet, who briefly returned to Turkey in 2009, has claimed his Istanbul home was raided by police linked to Gülenists, and he was accused of drug possession, a charge he was later cleared of. Emanet told Daily Sabah in an earlier interview that Gülenists had great clout in the U.S. and claimed to come across documents proving fraud at a school chain, ranging from cuts in teachers' salaries to fund the movement to school funds diverted to companies linked to Gülenists.

Fethullah Gülen, the retired preacher who leads the Gülen Movement, is among Turkey's most wanted, with the country exerting a tremendous effort to obtain an international arrest warrant for him. He lives in a compound owned by his movement in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Ankara is seeking to secure his extradition from the U.S.

The Gülen Movement, which has seen members and sympathizers purged from state institutions, including the police and judiciary over the past three years, was designated by Turkish authorities as a national threat, a classification for terrorist organizations. A string of judicial inquiries over the past two years has revealed the seedier side of the movement promotes itself as a charity group that runs schools and works for interfaith dialogue. Gülenists are accused of illegally wiretapping thousands of people, from the prime minister to journalists and other prominent figures. They are also accused of imprisoning critics or anyone seen as an obstacle to the movement's attempts to gain further clout through sham trials. Hundreds of generals, academics and others were detained for years in cases in which they were accused of attempting to stage coups. It was later revealed that they were detained on charges based on false evidence planted by Gülenist members of law enforcement.

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