Should Massachusetts be afraid of Fethullah Gulen? That’s the question at the heart of the whispering campaign against the Pioneer Charter School of Science, a high-achieving public school in Everett whose loose connections to the influential Turkish religious figure came under heightened scrutiny when it sought state permission to expand to a second location in Saugus.
Gulen is a moderate Muslim cleric who emphasizes science and whose followers have started schools worldwide, including hundreds of charter schools in the United States. Pioneer’s director, Barish Icin, says the Everett school isn’t connected to Gulen, but some of the school’s choices suggest at least a casual link; the school has hired 16 Turkish science, math, or technology teachers with temporary visas, though only four are currently on the school’s staff. It has also contracted with a law firm tied to the Gulen movement.
But that doesn’t really matter. Public schools should be judged based on their performance, and according to state statistics, Pioneer is doing an exemplary job. The school has received state awards for its high MCAS scores, which are significantly above statewide averages; when it sought to expand, many parents attested to the education their children at the grade 7-12 school are receiving. The school offers 200 days a year of instruction, almost a full month more than district schools. Of the 34 students in the school’s first graduating class last year, more than 30 were accepted to four-year colleges. If this is foreign interference in American education, maybe we need more.
Indeed, part of the point of charter schools is to provide a testing ground for unconventional educational approaches; schools are given wide latitude to set their own policies, as long as they adhere to basic guidelines. Importing Turkish teachers is about as unconventional as it gets. But the school broke no rules, the state has received no complaints about religious influence at the school, and its academic results speak for themselves.
Nationally, much of the controversy over Gulen-inspired schools has carried an undercurrent of xenophobia, as if the mere possibility of Muslim educators were inherently alarming. But educators of all religions can be inspired by their faith to help others. As long as they don’t discriminate against other religions, or try to inculcate their beliefs into schoolchildren, then it shouldn’t be a concern. Unless such complaints arise, there is no reason to object to the Pioneer school, and the state made the right call by approving its expansion.