September 22, 2005 — A controversy over sending St. Louis Public School teachers to a training program connected to the Church of Scientology underscores a major flaw in the federal No Child Left Behind Act: rigorous performance standards for public schools, but none for private companies that are supposed to repair the failures.
The controversy began to simmer before Labor Day when approximately two dozen teachers from Fanning and Long middle schools were sent for training to the Spanish Lake headquarters of Applied Scholastics International.
Some of the teachers complained to their union — the St. Louis Teachers and School-Related Personnel Union, American Federation of Teachers Local 420 — that the program is run by the Church of Scientology. Local 420 President Mary Armstrong and First Vice President Byron Clemons took the complaints about the workshops, Clemons called them “Church of Scientology workshops,” to school board member Bill Purdy. On September 13, Purdy asked Superintendent Creg Williams to look into the complaints and report back to the school board at its regular meeting on September 20.
In an interview with St. Louis Schools Watch, Applied Scholastics Chief Executive Officer Bennetta Slaughter denied that her organization has any connection to Scientology, a 35-year-old religion that holds that humans are made of clusters of extraterrestrial spirits called “thetans”, who were banished to Earth million years ago by an cruel galactic ruler named Xenu. Through an extensive series of costly “auditing” sessions by church “conductors,” individuals can supposedly “clear” the bad thetans away from the good thetans and achieve a higher level of understanding and a better life.
Slaughter said the confusion about Applied Scholastics comes from the fact that it is based on the educational writings and “study technology” of the man who founded Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, but, she said, the church is not involved in any way. Applied Scholastics licenses the right to use Hubbard’s educational writings from his estate, she said, not from the church. She also that she has no connection with Scientology.
Hubbard is everywhere in evidence at Applied Scholastic. His picture adorns walls, every book carries his name, and the curriculum talks about how Hubbard discovered “the barriers to learning” and the actual psychological states students enter when they come up against one of those barriers.
The connections to Scientology are stronger than just a common reverence of Hubbard, however. The promotional material and testimonials for Applied Scholastics feature such well known Scientologists as Tom Cruise, Isaac Hayes, and John Travolta. The “What is Scientology” web site of the Church of Scientology discusses Applied Scholastics and Hubbard’s “study technology” under the heading “Scientology Helping Students to Study.”
The web site of the Church of Scientology International says that Scientologists have made “programmes using Mr. Hubbard’s educational discoveries . . . available to the public through Applied Scholastics International.” The web site devotes several pages to Applied Scholastics.
The church’s magazine, “Freedom,” has featured Bennetta Slaughter and Applied Scholastics, and the web version links to the Applied Scholastics web site.
On her own web page, Slaughter attributes her success to Scientology: “Through Scientology counseling and courses I was able to gradiently dissolve away all those things that were stopping me,” she wrote. Slaughter formerly headed a Scientology publishing company called AMC Publishing, first in Dallas, Texas and later in Clearwater, Florida. In the course of an investigation into the death of a woman named Lisa McPherson in December 1995, Slaughter testified that she had been a Scientologist for over 20 years. In November 1998, Florida charged the Church of Scientology with murdering McPherson by keeping her locked up in a room and denying her medical attention until she died of dehydration. The medical examiner reported that it appeared she had not had water for five days.
Slaughter’s lack of forthrightness about the Scientology connections to Applied Scholastics raises a red flag about the group’s “study technology.” As Clemons said, “if there is a wall, it is a very thin wall, so thin you can hear the Scientologists talking on the other side.”
A second red flag is the “study technology” itself.
Applied Scholastics claims to use only the “educational discoveries” of L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, and no one else, because Hubbard discovered the barriers to learning and the ten rules for effective teaching.
According to Applied Scholastics, the first barrier to study is “lack of mass,” or “not having the real thing there that you are studying about.” Slaughter admitted that that is neither new nor profound, but said that what Hubbard did, “through hundreds of case studies,” was determine “the actual mental states and physical reactions” of students who bump up against this barrier. “They feel squashed, bent, sort of spinny, sort of lifeless, bored, or angry,” she said, reading from one of Applied Scholastics’ texts. “They can wind up with their stomach feeling funny, with headaches, feeling dizzy, and very often their eyes will hurt.”
The solution, according to Hubbard and Applied Scholastics, is to put the real thing that students are studying about right in front of them in the classroom. If teachers can’t do that — the Moon, for example, might not fit — “pictures help. Movies would help too.”
This stuff is so elementary, and so trite, that Applied Scholastic’s hype comes off as just plain silliness. Applied Scholastics teaches its methods with large comic books and cartoon posters mounted on the walls. The principals of Fanning and Long middle schools spent their professional development budgets on sending teachers to Applied Scholastics to study those comic books.
No Child Left Behind
Applied Scholastics is an approved provider in Missouri for supplemental education services under Title I of No Child Left Behind. That law requires that public schools that are labeled as “need improvement” have to set aside 20% of their Title I money for tutoring or transportation to tutoring from approved providers of supplemental education services.
Kaye Bartles, who is in charge of supplemental education services at Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), said Applied Scholastics is a new provider, “so we don’t know much about it.” She said organizations apply for approval by submitting an application, which gets read and graded by three people. There are no site visits to evaluate the organization, no review of the organization’s texts, because DESE does not have the staff to do those things.
Randy Rook, director of federal grant management at DESE, said that when President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind four years ago, “a lot of people saw this as a great way to get into real money.” Most of those people have dropped by the side, he said, but, he admitted, as of yet there has been no evaluation of those private tutoring programs. “There will be,” he added. He said he does not know anything about Applied Scholastics.
The third red flag to add to the dissembling and the trite programming at Applied Scholastics is the history of the Church of Scientology, which was involved in many frauds and scams.
In May, 1991, Time magazine detailed a list of scams and financial frauds perpetrated by Scientology in an article that labeled Scientology “The Thriving Cult of Power and Greed.” The Church of Scientology sued Time for libel, and lost.
Scientology has roots back in the publication in 1950 of Hubbard’s book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.” Hubbard claimed that unhappiness sprang from mental aberrations (or “engrams”) caused by early traumas, and that through “auditing” sessions with an “e-meter,” he could remove engrams, cure blindness, and improve a person’s intelligence and appearance.
Hubbard set up centers to sell his dianetics auditing services. In 1971, however, a federal court ruled that his claims that auditing had medical benefits were phony and his e-meter auditing could not be called scientific. Hubbard then declared that auditing was a religious rite, ordered Scientology officials to wear clerical garb, and began referring to payment for dianetics as “donations.”
The 1970s and ’80s marked the height of government investigations into Scientology. Eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations.
Hubbard himself went into hiding in 1981 as the IRS moved to indict him for tax fraud. He died, still in hiding, in 1986. Among the evidence against him were memos in which Hubbard urged his subordinates to: “Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money . . . However you get them in or why, just do it.”
Among scams identified by Time magazine were: Sterling Management Systems, formed in 1983, which mailed a free newsletter to more than 300,000 health-care professionals, mostly dentists, promising to increase their incomes dramatically, but which actually marketed Scientology auditing sessions.
HealthMed, a chain of clinics run by Scientologists, which promoted a grueling and excessive system of saunas, exercise and vitamins designed by Hubbard to purify the body. Experts denounced the regime as quackery and potentially harmful.
Narconon, a Scientology-run chain of 33 alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers based on Hubbard’s “purification” treatments.
A Florida rare coin dealership run by Scientologists, which was a front for money laundering.
And Applied Scholastics.
The church has claimed to have purged criminal elements from its organization in the mid 1980s. In 1993, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, the IRS recognized Scientology as a religion.
How did Applied Scholastics get into St. Louis Public Schools?
Slaughter credited Rev. Sammie Jones and school board member Ron Jackson with spreading positive words about her organization. Applied Scholastics trains tutors for a tutoring program at Jones’ church, and Slaughter has Jones’ photo on her office wall. She said Jones also has introduced the program to other ministers, including Rev. C. Jessell Strong.
Slaughter’s name dropping did not stop with Jones and Jackson. She said Applied Scholastics had a testimonial letter from Sumner Principal George Edwards, and she threw out such names as Harold Brown (aide to State Sen. Pat Dougherty), Congressman Lacy Clay, and former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Rod Paige as people who had been in contact with Applied Scholastics. Not all of them may have known of Scientology’s connections to Applied Scholastics.
So extensive is her rolodex that on the Tuesday morning before the St. Louis school board was supposed to her a report on her group, Slaughter said that Paige’s former chief of staff, John Danielson, had spoken the night before to Lynn Spampinato in favor of Applied Scholastics. Spampinato is the chief academic officer of St. Louis Public Schools. At the school board meeting that night, Spampinato reported that she had talked to Danielson. While acknowledging an arms length tie between Scientology and Applied Scholastics, she said: “The academic program has some credibility.”
Seven years ago, a Boston Herald expose on the Church of Scientology concluded that the World Literacy Crusade, one of the 580 subsidiary organizations of Applied Scholastics, “is part of a nationwide effort by the church to entice blacks into Scientology and then convince them to take other, expensive programs, according to critics and former members of the church.” As part of that effort, Applied Scholastics gained the endorsement of prominent local African Americans, got their methods introduced into a handful of Boston schools, and established a charter school, the Delphi Academy, that even used Scientology e-meters on students.
St. Louis Public Schools appeared headed in a different direction, however. At the school board meeting on September 20, Superintendent Williams concluded the discussion on Applied Scholastics with the declaration “lesson learned.” He said he would instruct principals to stop sending teachers to the organization for training.
Meanwhile, Applied Scholastics is gearing up for a partnership with Hazelwood Public Schools as an approved provider of tutoring services to children, who attend underperforming schools in that north county school district.