Since 2008, an unprecedented growth of charter schools spread throughout the country. With the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) enacted last year, this growth is expected to continue. Seen as a bipartisan success, unfortunately the ESSA has unintended consequences through the exploitation of the U.S. charter school system. 

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated educational organizations that, at times, attract wealthy foreigners wishing to use taxpayer funds to promote an ideological cause. The largest chain of U.S. charter schools is suspected to be led by the leader of a movement facing terror charges in his home country of Turkey. 

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Living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, with a net worth of around $25 billion, Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen has catalyzed a global movement of charter schools from Africa to Latin America into the United States. Building private schools in over 180 countries around the world, the global Gülen movement has paved the way for the largest U.S. charter school network with more than 140 schools in some 26 states

What lies underneath this charter-school network, however, is a possible undercurrent of white-collar crime and corruption. Known in Turkey as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization or FETÖ this growing network is being investigated by the FBI for everything from fraud and malpractice, to misuse of public funds. One spokeswoman for the bureau said that an investigation is ongoing and FBI agents carried out raids at 19 Gülen-affiliated charter schools in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio in 2014. 

Receiving approximately $150 million a year in tax breaks and subsidies, government officials are increasingly concerned that taxpayer dollars are being used to fund a close-knit network of Turkish teachers and businesses using charter schools as a Trojan horse for embedding into the U.S. education system.  

Largely designated as 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, many of these charter schools use their charitable status to funnel foreign teachers from Turkey into the homeland. These teachers arrive with a special visa called H1B, which is intended to incentivize professionals from abroad with critical skills needed in our labor force. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Gülen affiliated schools are among the largest users of H1B visas. In 2009, for instance, Gülen affiliated charter schools received 684 H1B visas. By comparison, Google Inc. only received 440 that same year.

Suspicion of irregularities arose when a whistleblower from within the Gülen network testified before a Virginia school board that her husband would kickback 40 percent of his salary to the movement. This was followed by research revealing how “Turkish” language teachers is on the rise within U.S. charter schools since 2006 irrespective that no demand for the language exists. 

Moreover, according to documents seized by the FBI during the 2014 raids, this surplus of Turkish teachers is complemented by preferential contracts awarded to Turkish-owned companies connected to the  Gülen movement. The Gülen affiliated charter schools are suspected of using public grants given to them through the E-rate program by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to hire these companies violating competition rules stated in the grant. 

For all these activities and more, the Gülen affiliated charter schools are raising red flags for U.S. authorities.  

Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks demonstrate a concern by U.S. officials that these Turkish teachers and businesses “might be using the reputation of the school as a cover to get to the U.S.” These cables state that the H1B visa applications were “not convincing” and that Gülen’s more moderate message “cloaks a more sinister and radical agenda.”

In Turkey, the Gülen movement set up a vast network of financial institutions, banks, businesses, media outlets and most importantly educational institutions. It is accused by the Turkish government of using this network to infiltrate state institutions in order to overthrow the government. To this day, the movement maintains an inordinate amount of influence in Turkey, particularly within its education system where 75 percent of prep school students are enrolled in Gülen-affiliated institutions. 

Just as the Gülen movement has built its influence in Turkey, this same kind of web of money, power and influence are being built within the U.S. The worst part is it’s being funded by U.S. taxpayers. As law enforcement continues to unravel this web of corruption and white collar crime, it would prove productive for the U.S. Congress to provide oversight and support to this investigation. If for nothing else, so that the success and integrity of the Every Student Succeeds Act are not lost because of one bad actor. 

Humire is the executive director of the DC-based, global think tank the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS). Follow him on Twitter @jmhumire.