Monday, March 5, 2012

Could Scientologists open a charter school in South Carolina?

Let's see: We have a charter school law that gives interested parties a way to get around local school boards to open charter schools.

And we have a legislature that seems bent on adopting voucher laws that would funnel public money to parochial and private schools, eliminating any wall between church and state.

So, I think the answer is yes, Scientologists could open a charter school in South Carolina, and nobody could principly oppose it. Or, for that matter, a charter school with a focus on any variety or stripe of quasi-religiosity, cloaked in mumbo-jumbo and "research-based outcomes." Oooh.

And then we just might wind up with the situation that Tampa, Florida, is facing today.

The Life Force Arts and Technology Academy in Dunedin, a charter elementary school serving low-income children, has sold area parents a bill of goods.

Sounds like South Carolina already.

It promised an enriching arts and technology program and delivered a school stripped of resources by its management company and laden with Church of Scientology teaching methodology. The school's actions raise serious questions about fiscal control and church-state separation. Pinellas County schools superintendent John Stewart is right to recommend to the School Board that it be shut down as soon as possible.

Ah, but under our own charter school law, a local superintendent has no authority to influence a charter school, if that school was chartered by the state charter authority.

Remember: This was former Governor Mark Sanford's proposal to get around local school boards who didn't want to open charter schools of questionable capabilities and means. The legislature gave him what he wanted, a state charter school board with the authority to grant charters anywhere in the state.

Does this sound familiar?

Almost since it opened in 2009, Life Force has been riddled with problems. Its first principal was fired, charged with stealing from a family trust. By last summer the school had debts of more than $400,000. Facing possible closure by the school district, which oversees the county's charter schools, the Life Force board enlisted Hanan Islam's Art of Management company to overhaul the school. The school also filed for bankruptcy, giving it protection from the district terminating its charter school contract.

As reported by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Drew Harwell, since Islam came to Life Force some parents and former teachers charge that the school's children have been targets for recruitment by the Church of Scientology. The student body of about 95 students was taught using the "study technology" of Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard, according to former teachers. The school's children attended a Christmas party at a Scientology church in Tampa's Ybor Square, where they were given Scientology books and DVDs. And another endeavor of Islam's was as executive director of the World Literacy Crusade, a California organization that promotes Scientology education methods.

All of this exposure to Scientology-related material violates prohibitions in the U.S. and Florida constitutions on religion in public schools. The school may claim that the material is secular in nature, but since Scientology insists it is a religion, anything produced by it or by Hubbard should be considered religious. The church may freely open its own private schools, but it cannot infiltrate public schools like charter schools or have its teachings influence the curriculum. Life Force receives about $800,000 in taxpayer support per year.

See, our state's solution around that particular obstacle is to grant vouchers to parents who want to send their children to parochial schools, and to give tax deductions to parents who already send their children to such schools. Our state Constitution, of course, prohibits spending public dollars on private, parochial schools, but since when does South Carolina abide by the spirit and the letter of its own Constitution?

The Constitution also guarantees an elected state superintendent of education, but our leaders have been trying for years -- and they're still trying, now -- to get an appointed superintendent, so the governor will control the Department of Education, too.

In addition to the church-state problems, Islam's management is highly suspect. She generously rewarded her company even as the school was foundering. Islam's management company was paid more than $56,000 for the three months following the school's bankruptcy filing, which is nearly double what Islam told the courts she would charge. Meanwhile the school stopped paying for bus service, teachers couldn't get classroom supplies or get paid on time, and the school's academic performance failed to meet many of its self-written goals.

The debacle at Life Force points up the dangers of charter schools. The freedom given these privately run schools using public money can be easily abused in the wrong hands. On Tuesday, the Pinellas School Board should give Life Force its 90-day notice of termination as Stewart recommends. The sooner this school is shut down and Islam is given her walking papers, the better.

That sums it up, doesn't it? "The freedom given these privately run schools using public money can be easily abused in the wrong hands."

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