The Tucson charter link to unrest in Turkey


by David Safier

The current unrest in Turkey isn't big news in Tucson. Corruption in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government doesn't merit front page, or even inside page news here. But there's a connection. Erdogan has close ties to a Turkish Sufi preacher living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen. And Gulen is the glue holding together a number of charter schools across the country including the Sonoran Science Academies here in Tucson, which has a number of campuses including one on the Davis-Monthan Air Force base.

There's nothing new about the news that Sonoran Schools are loosely affiliated with what is known as the Gulen movement in the U.S., or that Sonoran Science charters are affiliated with similar charters across the country. I've written about it. The Star's Tim Steller has written about it. It's been on 60 Minutes and other news programs. But with Turkey, Erdogan and Gulen back in the news, it's worth mentioning.

It makes sense to turn a watchful eye on these Turkey-centric schools, as many people have. A national movement is both very watchful and very suspicious, including people here in Tucson, some of whom have had children at the schools. But while there's reason for suspicion, the jury is still out. Charters are forbidden from being religious schools, and I haven't read anything that says the schools spread Gulen's teachings directly. The education is probably less centered on Turkey and Turkish culture than, say, public or charter French schools, which are reasonably common, are centered on France and French culture. The schools have many Turkish teachers, some of whom come over on H-1B visas for temporary employment in specialty occupations. The whole visa thing deserves looking into to determine if the teachers are coming here because of their skills or to gain entry to the U.S. I've heard some of the teachers have questionable English skills.

The schools have a good academic reputation. Here and in the Phoenix area, they have B grades from the state. They also are majority white, generally over 60%, and fewer than 40% of their students are on free or reduced lunch, meaning their state grades are similar to district schools with similar demographics. In other words, they fit into a similar category with BASIS, Great Heart and other charters that give a good quality education to a select student body.

No conclusions here. I expect the subject of the Gulen-related schools will be raised again now that the Turkish government is in the papers, and this is just to give some background on the Sonoran Science controversy.