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Saved by a Rumor

This was the week, among other things, when Los Angeles dabbled with the notion of pouring tax dollars into a school that planned to catechize its students with Scientology-inspired texts. It was like watching a train wreck about to happen.

At week’s end, the debacle may have been avoided. The Board of Education caught on to the gambit and some of those involved now predict that the board’s vote, expected sometime in the next 30 days, could be negative in the extreme.

But the point is this: The application for Northwest Charter School almost cruised past the board without anyone knowing about the Scientology connection. More amazing yet, school officials say the sponsors broke no rules when they failed to disclose it.

Thus the story of Northwest really amounts to something more than a possible gambit by the Scientologists. It’s a cautionary tale about the waves of reform washing over the education system and how that reform can easily get converted into something truly, horribly embarrassing.

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In case you missed the news accounts, here’s the Cliffs Notes version of the Northwest affair:

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In June, public school teacher Linda Smith submitted an otherwise innocuous proposal for a charter school in the East San Fernando Valley. A “charter” school is something new; it can operate with virtual independence of school board rules while continuing to receive public money.

Smith’s application tends toward the standard buzz phrases. Under its Statement of Philosophy, the application intones: “Instruction is based upon continual assessment and evaluation, goal setting, and specialized forms of instruction leading to performance based assessed skills acquired, accomplished or mastered.”

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You get the picture. For 62 pages it goes on and on, revealing almost nothing about the true nature of the school. Nonetheless, the application effectively jumps through all the legal hoops required by the school district.

For example, the district demands that the applicant explain “what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and how learning best occurs.” It also demands to know how the school will measure “pupil outcomes.”

But nowhere does the district ask the applicants, in effect, who they are. Might they be a church? Might they believe in hourly headstanding to facilitate a nourishing rush of blood to the brain? How about high colonics or exercise in the buff?

Not having asked, the district didn’t know. So the Northwest application wound through the bureaucracy and, last week, landed on the board calendar. A copy of it sat in front of each board member in all its opaque splendor.

And just maybe it could have rolled toward approval. Except that a few rumors had started to float around.

Board member David Tokofsky, for one, had heard the rumors. When Linda Smith came to the hearing table, he began to probe delicately, hoping she would volunteer the information. She didn’t.

Amy Pyle and Duke Helfand, two reporters at The Times, had also heard the rumors. They watched while Tokofsky failed to get Smith to spill.

In frustration, Tokofsky wandered back to the press table and started speaking his doubts to the assembled reporters. Then he blurted out, “Do you think she’s a Scientologist?”

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The effect was like throwing a match on gasoline. Within a few hours, to extend the metaphor, the application for Northwest School was toast--or well on its way to it. Smith admitted that she has been a Scientologist for 16 years and, more important, she planned to use school texts inspired by Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

In explaining this, Smith tried out an interesting distinction. Scientology, she said, is the religion founded by Hubbard. But the teaching philosophy founded by Hubbard is a technology. Not a religion at all. So it’s OK.

It’s not OK, of course. And now that all the layers have been peeled back, Northwest School may never open its doors.

We were saved, but not by the system designed to save us. All the bureaucrats and all the forms and questions failed. They produced 62 pages of gobbledygook about “goal setting” and “assessed skills acquired, accomplished and mastered.”

What saved us was the serendipity of rumor. Someone knew of Smith’s affiliation, and they whispered it to someone else who picked up the phone and passed it along.

A slender thread by which to hang the integrity of school reform. But right now, it’s all we’ve got.


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