ISTANBUL, March 1 (Reuters) - Turkey's parliament passed legislation to shut down private preparatory schools many of which are an important source of income and influence for an Islamic cleric Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accuses of running a covert campaign to topple him.
Lawmakers late on Friday set a deadline of Sept. 1, 2015, to close the schools, news channels reported, which millions of students attend to prepare for entrance examinations to win limited spots at state high schools and universities.
The government has accused cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers wield influence in the police and judiciary, of concocting a graft scandal to compromise Erdogan and his government. The scandal broke with police raids on Dec. 17 but ties between the ex-allies have been tense for several years
The government's initial moves to shut down cram centres late last year escalated those tensions ahead of March 30 municipal election, seen as a critical test of support for Erdogan after 11 years in power.
Education is central to U.S.-based Gulen's Hizmet, or Service, movement's mission. Their respected prep schools help spread influence across a nationwide network, and shutting them will deprive Hizmet of a chief source of financing.
Followers of Gulen, who preaches respect for science, democracy and dialog with other faiths, have forged a powerful socio-religious community network active. Gulen, who says he has no plans to form a political party, denies any involvement in the graft investigation.
Erdogan remains by far Turkey's most popular politician. In parliament he faces a weak opposition and, supporters argue, at the polling stations his success in driving Turkey's economy could eclipse any damage from corruption accusations.
Erdogan has said that abolishing the cram schools is part of a larger reform of an "unhealthy" educational system that ranks Turkey below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average in literacy, maths and science.
The law allows some of the cram schools to become private schools, giving them free access to properties that belong to the Treasury, and for the Education Ministry to recruit some of the teachers to work in public schools. (Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Seda Sezer; editing by Ralph Boulton)