“Curiouser and Curiouser”!

We’re all familiar with the classic exclamation in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. Now we’re finding out in a breaking story that the term curiouser and curiouser is a phrase that might perfectly describe the present state of the Dark Side, aka Charterdom or Charterland, exactly 150 years after we were introduced to the original Wonderland.

On December 9, at the National Press Club, it was announced that the Republic of Turkey has retained the international law firm Amsterdam & Partners to assist in an investigation of the Gulen charter school network. Last month, the firm issued a press release that contained this curious sentence. “We cannot entrust an entire generation of children to a group that claims to uphold the ‘truth of light,’ yet is itself covered in darkness…”

The Dark Side just might see some sunlight with the work of Amsterdam. But even the Dark Side has yet another dark side that also needs to be examined, viz. the Dark Side meets the even Darker Side. Does this sound like Donald Rumsfeld, who famously said that “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The lawsuit filed by Amsterdam accuses the Gulen network of engaging in human trafficking by forcing employees to kick back part of their salaries and also promoting Islam as part of their program of administering their charter school chain.
Could Rumsfeld nearly a quarter-century ago have seen the future we now know (or think we know or know what we don’t know) as Charterdom? More on that later.

Amsterdam’s October release also contains this statement:

“The activities of the Gulen network, including its penetration of the Turkish judiciary and police, as well as its political lobbying abroad, should concern everyone who cares about the future of democracy in Turkey.”

Political lobbying? The future of democracy in Turkey? In May, we posted about how adept the Gulen Network is in manipulating the Ohio legislature, and last month we looked again at their skilled practice of entertaining both national and state politicians. So that part of the Gulen saga is – or should be – well known.

But if the Gulen Movement, which operates a chain of about 150 charter schools nationally and 19 in Ohio, is seen as a threat to Turkish democracy, what does that suggest about the current condition of or threat to democracy in our own country?

You can start to answer that question by examining one of the basic hallmarks of American democracy – a local public school board elected by qualified voters residing in the district to provide oversight for the public’s schools. An Akron Beacon Journal investigation in 2014 found that Gulen schools had governing boards populated by Turkish men, some of whom were not even American citizens. These unelected “public” charter school boards then acted to employ teachers, some of whom were holders of H1B visas as part of their visitor status in this country.

Where do we see qualified voters – fellow citizens, our neighbors – in all of this? Does it make any sense to bring in teachers from another country when there are qualified teachers who could be employed in these “public” charter schools? Dear members of the Ohio legislature, please tell us, does this make any sense from a public policy perspective to outsource both school governance and part of the “public” charter school’s instructional staff to non-citizens?

As we learn more about this lawsuit and the investigations that might arise from it, we might at least agree that political lobbying – apparently paid for through public funds received for the purpose of running “public” charter schools, is a problem. But so is the threat to democracy posed by non-elected and unaccountable charter school boards. In fact, the Washington Supreme Court determined in September that charter schools were unconstitutional because qualified voters were not involved in the election of their governing boards. The question of non-citizens serving as board members would have made that Supreme Court case even more interesting, inasmuch as you have to be a qualified voter (citizen) to run for office as an elected public school board member.

There is just one more thing to consider about this dispute between the Turkish government and the Gulen Movement.  It has been reported for at least a year that the Islamic State terrorist organization has been selling oil on the black market to Turkish middlemen. Whether or not these middlemen have direct ties to the Turkish government is subject to question, but the situation is so murky that both the Russian and Turkish governments are accusing each other of being involved in the black market oil trade that provides ISIS with a rich source of revenue to carry out murder and mayhem in the Middle East, and now, after Paris and San Bernardino, beyond.

So now we have a charter school chain that is accused in a lawsuit filed by an international law firm of human trafficking, teaching Islam, engaging in political lobbying, and being a threat to democracy. But we also have accusations that the very government that initiated the lawsuit against Gulen has itself been accused of tolerating black markets in Turkey that trade in ISIS oil.

At the very least, I’m confused. Aren’t you? After all, Alice might say in her Wonderland, er Charterland, er Dark Side, that things are looking curiouser and curiouser.

Stay tuned. In the end, it’s always all about Charterland, and there’s more to come. Always.


Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.