Books on how to read by the founder of Scientology become an issue in Los Angeles
by Robert Jablon
In a matter that has raised delicate questions of church and state, the Los Angeles school district is being asked to approve a so-called charter school that would use reading textbooks written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Special education teacher Linda Smith, a 20-year member of the Church of Scientology, wants to set up a 100-student charter school in suburban Tujunga. It would rely on texts employing Hubbard’s “study technology.”
“These are incredible study techniques. . . . that have nothing to do with religion,” Smith said. She said she has used the books to teach reading for more than 20 years “with stellar results.”
The Los Angeles school district — the nation’s second-largest, with more than 660,000 students — has 14 charter schools. Aimed at improving education, they are freed from most state or local curriculum requirements but still are publicly funded.
Scientology was founded 40 years ago by Hubbard, a science fiction writer. It teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve human problems. With 8 million members worldwide, it won legal status as a church in the United States in 1993, though critics claim it is a cult or a business.
Hubbard died in 1986.
The charter school would seek to help students who have a hard time learning. Scientology would not be taught there, supporters said.
“It has nothing to do with religion or L. Ron Hubbard or anything,” said Don Woods of inner-city Jefferson High, one of three other district teachers and Scientologists who already use the materials. “It’s just a method, a way of learning.”
All this raises strong constitutional issues for School Board member David Tokofsky.
“We can’t hand public funds over to institutions that are running around the country saying that they’re a religion and they deserve tax-free status,” he said Monday.
Tokofsky predicted the board will kill the application. Board President Julie Korenstein said staff and legal advice will be sought before the board takes up the request next month.
In two of the books geared toward students, boy and girl characters teach nouns, verbs, adjectives and other common reading concepts. The only references to Scientology are in the back, where teachers and parents are told about Hubbard and his views on overcoming “barriers to study.”
Hubbard’s three basic theories for overcoming these barriers:
Students should immediately consult a dictionary when they encounter a word they don’t understand; difficult concepts should be taught by relating them to real life; students should conquer difficult material by studying it incrementally.
The state Education Department recently gave preliminary approval to five of the Hubbard texts, a step toward allowing state public schools to buy the books.
“There’s no religion mentioned in those books,” said Anna Emery of the Education Department. If given final approval, they could be in schools by September. Purchase would be up to each district.
Scientology has been branded a cult by conservative Christians and, in Germany, a threat to the government.
“I would be suspicious that they would still be able to expose them (children) to their doctrine,” said Tujunga resident Patty Garland, who has two school-age children.
Others said the critics are over-reacting.
“Webster wrote the first American dictionary. He was a devout Christian,” said Ian Lyons, president of Scientology’s publishing arm. “We’re not going to throw dictionaries out of the classroom because Webster wrote it.”
In Lafayette, La., the Hubbard books were used in a two-year experiment in 1993. Children showed definite improvement in their reading, said Helen Magee, principal at St. Antoine Elementary School.
“It was a joy to watch that class and see them improving,” said Magee, who took the teacher training program herself.
“This is a strong Catholic area. We’re strong in our faith, and there’s no way we would have allowed” religious instruction. “But it was never brought in. It was all about helping children.”