1. Opinion

Charter school dangers on display in Scientology case

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. 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.

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.

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.