A Phoenix charter school district asked its teachers to use the curriculum of a Scientology-affiliated organization in classrooms. Not so surprisingly, educators (and some parents) in the district aren't very happy about it.
Local public radio station KJZZ broke the story last month on Applied Scholastics' entrance into the district's curriculum, but it has since bubbled up to national news desks, with NPR running a version of their story on Morning Edition this week. Here's their interview with Katie Donahoe, a former teacher in the Career Success charter school district, explaining her introduction to the L. Ron Hubbard-founded teaching method:
"They didn't start off talking about instruction. They started off talking about L. Ron Hubbard," says Donohoe, who was there at the urging of her new superintendent. Later that fall she would start teaching English at Robert L. Duffy High School in Phoenix. But first, she was asked to get familiar with Hubbard's methods.
"The next stop was to watch a video talking about how great Applied Scholastics was," Donahoe says. Among those in the video were Isaac Hayes, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. "These are not education experts. These are Scientology spokespeople. It was very weird," she says. Donahoe has since left the school.
The Church of Scientology characterizes Applied Scholastics as a secular education program that's supported by the church, but not religious in nature. It's a tricky distinction to make, and one that former teachers in Phoenix, for one, aren't buying. That's especially after teachers were asked to distribute "The Way To Happiness," an ethical "non-religious" booklet that's pretty ubiquitous in Scientology outreach efforts. The booklet contains commandment-like ethical codes from Hubbard.
The Daily wrote a brief investigation into the organization about a year ago. In it, they explained that, while the teaching concepts are superficially simple and harmless, its method, "study tech," is also a "founding principle" of the Scientology religion. In other words, the conceptual lines are much more blurred than its supporters claim. Plus, it's not necessarily effective: Applied Scholastics is an approved tutoring program in Colorado, but it was put "on notice" last year by the state after a review found that it wasn't effective in boosting student performance, according to the Denver Post (As NPR notes, the organization didn't apply for the program for the 2013 school year).
The Career Success district is run by Robert L. Duffy, for whom (presumably) Robert L. Duffy High School in the district is named. As KJZZ explains, his district gets $6 million from Arizona to educate low-income students. He insists that Applied Scholastics' methodology is effective and not religious in nature: "It’s very basic stuff ... it has nothing to do with church or religion. Believe me I am not a Scientologist. I hear things about them, and I don’t support that at all.”
Applied Scholastics, however, makes no attempt to downplay their connection to Scientology (there's an entire section on L. Ron Hubbard on their website), or to their designation as a Supplemental Education Service in some public school districts under the No Child Left Behind Act. For those states still abiding by the education reform law, SES services are publicly-funded tutoring programs available to low-income students in under-performing schools. According to their 2011 tax forms, Applied Scholastics-associated tutors and programs were paid to work with 328 public schools in 2011, and conducted training for teachers in 13 states. They made more than $1.1 million from education and literacy programs that year worldwide. The year before, they brought in $1.3 million.
Here's one of Applied Scholastics' promotional videos for your viewing pleasure, notice there's no shortage of Hubbard and Scientology references: