International political intrigue invaded an otherwise sleepy Los Angeles school board meeting on a recent Tuesday night.
“They need to fix the issues in Turkey—this has no place in American public education,” shouted Anoushik Kachadoorian, a member of the public who got up to speak at the podium. She gestured behind her to rows of teachers from Magnolia Charter Schools, an educational network linked to Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. “Every educational expert in this state knows who these people are.”
The heated comments were nothing new for Magnolia’s staff. In February, a law firm hired by the Turkish government filed a legal complaint against the schools with California’s Department of Education, implicating Magnolia in Turkey’s lobbying effort to discredit Gulen, an Islamic scholar who lives in Pennsylvania. Now, at the hearing, the Los Angeles Unified School District was about to decide whether to remove the charters of several Magnolia schools.
As Kachadoorian left the podium, one by one the teachers took the microphone and pleaded.
“Magnolia is truly a family, it’s not just a school,” said Jillian Okamura, dean of culture at Magnolia Science Academy, where 84 percent of students are Hispanic. “Educating the whole child is something we value. Emotionally, academically and socially as well.”
But at the end of the testimonies, school board members voted unanimously to remove the charters of three L.A. Magnolia schools. The reason for the decision—withholding accounting financial information from auditors—was nearly identical to the legal complaint brought by Turkey’s lawyers.
The case of Magnolia’s charter schools shows just how widely Turkey has cast its net in the post-coup crackdown against Gulen’s supporters. And the California network is not alone—through a series of lawsuits, Turkey’s government is attacking Gulen-affiliated charter schools in four different states, accusing them of money laundering, corrupt contracting practices and abusing taxpayer funds.
While the Los Angeles school board hearing was ostensibly unrelated, Robert Amsterdam, the attorney spearheading the nationwide campaign, believes the board’s decision was spurred by the firm’s legal complaint.
“They closed those schools on the basis of our claims,” said Amsterdam. “These schools are basically established on a multiplicity of scams.”
The L.A. Unified School District denied in a statement that its decision had anything to do with Turkey’s campaign against Gulen’s schools. But to Magnolia, the rejection was a clear bow to mounting political pressure.
“This is a highly political issue,” said Naush Baghossian, spokesperson for Magnolia. “There’s a lot of money being spent on this. You’ve got limitless funds coming straight from a foreign government.”
For decades, Gulen has built educational networks around the world tied to the Hizmet Movement, which is based on his teachings. The Turkish government, expanding on its post-coup purge at home, has targeted as many of these institutions abroad as possible.
“They have approached a number of foreign governments and asked them to close schools financed by Hizmet,” said David Phillips, an expert on Turkish affairs at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. To Phillips, the focus on American schools is a ploy to hasten extradition.
“They’ve largely focused on the extradition request. The efforts have been broad and systematic, and what they really want to do is put Gulen in the dock and then reinstate the death penalty.”
Turkey has now leveled legal action against Gulen-affiliated schools in California, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. The law firm hired by the Turkish government, Amsterdam and Partners, promises to expand the campaign to the east coast, where dozens more of these schools are based.
“The next place we’re going is New York and New Jersey,” said Amsterdam. “One of the biggest sources of complaints we get are from Syracuse. It’s outright theft.”
In New Jersey, administrators at some of these schools are anxiously awaiting their turn.
“All of the things we do as a public school in New Jersey is clouded by global politics,” said Dawn Fantasia, spokesperson for iLearn Schools, which operates nine suburban charter schools. Fantasia doesn’t deny the schools have connections to Gulen, but claims the network simply wants to educate like any other institution. “It changes nothing about what we do. We’ll just stand behind what we’re doing here.”
The legal complaints leveled against Gulen-affiliated charter schools are similar in each of the states. Amsterdam claims that the schools abuse a federal visa program—called H1B—to bring alleged Gulenist teachers from Turkey, that Turkish vendors get fast-tracked into school contracts and that the schools fall below state educational standards.
The success of these legal moves has been mixed so far. In March, Amsterdam filed a legal complaint with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) alleging that Harmony Public Schools—the state’s largest charter school network with more than 30,000 students—misappropriated state funds. But by the summer, TEA had dismissed eight of the ten complaints, and Amsterdam was forced to appeal.
In Ohio and Illinois, the firm is targeting a group called Concept Schools, which manages a network of 30 campuses and 13,000 students. The legal complaint in Ohio claims that the schools were using taxpayer funds to overpay rent on properties to companies also owned by the schools. The Ohio state auditor, Dave Yost, said in a statement that “we will review this complaint as we do every complaint we receive from citizens and other interested parties.”
But complicating Turkey’s legal crusade is the fact that many of these schools don’t admit any direct connection to Gulen or his followers. The imam is not mentioned in any of the schools’ public or promotional material. Critics point to the presence of Turkish nationals on the school boards as evidence of the link. To Amsterdam, the attorney, the connection is obvious.
“It’s like asking someone in the mafia if they’re in the mafia,” said Amsterdam. “People who engage in criminal conduct don’t sign a register or carry around a membership card.”
Amsterdam’s law firm is just one of the many American companies hired by the Turkish government to carry out lobbying, public relations and legal work in the U.S.—operations that cost Turkey millions of dollars every year. In August alone, Turkey spent more than $1 million on new public relations and consulting contracts with two firms, according to filings from the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act database. Turkey’s lobbying efforts in America utilize some of the most high-profile firms on K Street, including the Gephardt Group and the Madison Group. great.
Back in California, last week Magnolia’s charter school administrators took their case to Los Angeles County, to see if the city’s ruling could be overturned.
For the Magnolia’s CEO, Candice Young, the move was an opportunity to appeal to a body that might see through the international drama. In an email right before the hearing she wrote: “We look forward to having a partner who refuses to bend to political pressures that have nothing to do with educating students.”