A new documentary on the Gülen Movement, a mysterious Islamic group operating charter schools throughout the US, premieres today and runs through March 31st at the Cinema Village Theatre in NYC. A pre-release screening earlier this month with translation into Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese drew a diverse crowd of 980 and a standing ovation in L.A. Yet this national film, a bi-coastal sensation, was passed over by Texas' four largest film festivals and the state's media.
"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," said Mark Hall, the documentary's independent director and producer. Hall added,
This was a very difficult film to make because these people don't want to be on camera, they wouldn't be interviewed. The subject of charter schools is also very difficult because most people don't want to criticize the school 'reform' movement. Killing Ed is not necessarily a 'cinematic' film, but the purpose of an exposé is to reveal something that the populace needs to be aware of.
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 Islamist group's interests, no less - hits a lot of nerves, which has people in power keeping their distance.
Among the facts uncovered in KILLING ED, the Gülen Movement, which is operated by followers of Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, has been identified as a 'terrorist organization' by the Turkish government. The movement is under FBI investigation in four states and 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.
Granted, the intent of the film is not to take issue with all charters schools, but rather focuses on the worst-case scenario. But isn't examination of more than 100 charter schools run by a Turkish imam in the United States warranted as we explore educational reform? After all, the Gülen charter chain is the largest of its kind in America, employing approximately 5,000 Turkish employees brought over on H1-B visas - many of whom are un-certified, untrained teachers - to teach American children.
Gülen charters also use taxpayer dollars to give preferential support to affiliated businesses ranging from catering and construction to school furniture and curriculum development. The schools advertise heavily and sponsor events, creating income for media outlets, lobbyists, and consultants. 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.
"Thousands of people have been on these propaganda trips to Turkey," said Sharon Higgins, co-founder of Parents Across America and an expert on the Gülen charter schools.
This New York Times article is one of the few major news stories on the Gülen Movement over the past 5 years. In it, Stephanie Saul chronicles the activities concerning just one of the Turkish Gülen-affiliated contractors operating in Texas. In the film, you see the abuses from another contractor, Solidarity Contracting of Houston, which built several schools in the state, including the Harmony School of Political Science and Communication in Austin.
"Solidarity has gone out of business and no one knows what happened to the owner of the company, a Gülen follower named Levent Ulusal," said Hall.
Since viewing the film, I have my own ideas as to why my fellow Texans would ignore this, but quality isn't one of them. In its short life, the documentary has garnered acclaim from educated stakeholders and experts in the film industry. KILLING ED has been nominated for a Best Documentary jury prize at the upcoming Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.
Furthermore, in a letter from the director of acquisitions for the Tallgrass Film Festival, Shan Jabara hailed the film "a hit" at Tallgrass. In the following excerpt, Jabara urged the Dallas International Film Festival to screen it:
KILLING ED enjoyed a preview screening at our last festival...and aroused great interest and concern for the subject of the Gulen Movement's charter schools and their rapid expansion. Most of our audience had no knowledge of this crusade, although there are a handful of local professors who had traveled to Turkey as guests of an organization that is connected to the Gulen Movement. The professors were very supportive of the organization as they were well-treated and there was no attempt at indoctrination. However, they seemed to have no idea that U.S. tax dollars were supporting the Movement's chartered schools and that they were poorly run, non-student centered and corrupt institutions opening up around the country. We have educators on our prescreening and programming committees that were so appreciative to have a chance to see this film before such a school was attempted in our city (the largest in the state of Kansas.)
As a film enthusiast, I can live with the fact that our state's film festivals failed to find room for a good documentary. But as a parent, a Texan, and a media advocate, I am astonished by the lack of support for this artful execution of a terrifying systemic problem. And my point of view does not stem from a lack of interest in Islam or education reform. I can get on board with a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. To name a few examples, I engage in Interfaith dialogue and send my kids to a Catholic school (and I'm not even Catholic).
But looking the other way as funds are diverted from our public education system, which is subject to locally-elected oversight and regulations to protect the public interest, in order to finance charter schools that further sub-par education and fund anti-democratic activities in the US and other nations? That is unconscionable.
The parallel of a society's reticence to confront an uncomfortable yet dangerous problem hit me while watching Spotlight, the Oscar-nominated film based on the true story of The Boston Globe investigation of priests molesting school children. That film exposed a different problem, but the same sentiment: If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.
On digging deeper, I began to find out why. According to New York University Research Professor of Education Diane Ravitch, "The privatization movement is 'the perfect storm'."
In theory, the privatization of education makes sense. The problem is, it still has severe problems in application. As Dr. Ravitch explained,
In 1998 I testified on behalf of charter schools in New York. I become very discouraged because one of the conservative think tanks where I was on the board authorized charters in Ohio and all of them failed. Over time I began looking and saying to myself 'these things don't work'. The testing's not working its not making schools better. The kids are not getting a better education; they're getting a worse education. They're losing the arts, they're losing physical education, they're losing history. I began to realize that the things I believed in were wrong. When people say why did you change your mind it's a simple answer: three words: I was wrong.
"You see the politicians looking the other way not wanting to acknowledge the problems they know," said Hall. "You see the same thing with the foundations of billionaires, like Bill & Melinda Gates, that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to push through a school policy agenda that most Americans may not want."
Keeping Texas Dumb
The Gülen movement informally operates schools internationally under the cover of various foundations and brand names. Here in Texas, Harmony Public Schools operates nearly 40 campuses around the state, often branded or positioned as science academies or STEM-related in major and secondary metropolitan areas.
KILLING ED features several teachers who were willing to go on record concerning the drawbacks of the Harmony charter school chain, the largest chain of charter schools in the state.
"The Turkish administrators do most of the planning on what is going to be implemented in our schools," said Harmony educator Amy Warren. She added that she's not qualified to teach health and was encouraged to take the kids to recess.
Another Harmony teacher in Lubbock, who kept anonymous in the film to prevent reprisals from the Gülen Movement read from her diary, "I think at this point we have more un-certified teachers than certified."
In Houston, a covert camera shows the "special ed" student sitting outside of three different classes during his day.
The privatization movement postulates that the broken school system will benefit from competition. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who advocates for privatizing education using a voucher system, claims that parents aren't complaining so he's not worried.
"We have over 500 campuses. We have 215 charters, so if you have a charter and you're successful, you can replicate," said Patrick. However, in a clip from KILLING ED, Patrick mentions Harmony among the models, even though its operations are clearly problematic.
As a parent, I can see this from both sides. No question that our public school system has its challenges. My own urban neighborhood's public school is 98 percent low-income and serves a predominantly Spanish-speaking community. After some of our neighborhood's most committed parents made a go of making the public school work, many gave up over frustrations with school administrators and other issues. The options these parents faced were to home school, choose a private or charter school or move. We opted to stay and selected a local private school.
The benefits we enjoy by supporting our local Catholic school include a warm and diverse community, an accountable principal, certified teachers, engaged parents, and a transparent system - essentially the same benefits I would expect from a well-performing public school. It is a shame that we have to pay to get the benefits that many suburban families get in their public schools, and that the lack of more viable options prevents more families from staying in town.
As a Texan, when it comes time to pay my property taxes each year, I don't complain because I know this contribution helps fund the public school system that should provide the quality of education that every child deserves. In the real world, words like "should" may sound idealistic, but supporting public education is an ideal worth pursuing if we want America to remain a superpower.
Privatization is a much larger issue than one shady school system, but the Gülen movement exemplifies the perils of diverting funds from public education to subsidize a system that serves special interests over those of our children.
Texas can do better. At least I hope we can.