Harrisburg -- What started as an unheralded effort to open Cabarrus County's first charter school became a battle this month after local residents raised questions about the school's plans to teach Transcendental Meditation.
Directors of the planned Carolina International School say they want to offer 10 minutes of Transcendental Meditation -- commonly called TM -- to fifth- through 12th-graders each day, to help them center themselves and learn better.
But about a half-dozen local residents and Cabarrus County commissioner Bob Carruth contend that TM is rooted in Hinduism, and as a religious practice, shouldn't be taught in a school that receives public money.
The meditation, developed from an ancient Indian practice, was introduced in the United States around 1960 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known to many for his friendship with the Beatles.
Psychology researchers most often study the physical and psychological aspects of the meditation rather than a religious component. TM is practiced by people of many faiths.
School director Richard Beall, who practices TM, defends the meditation, which he says is just one feature of a school that touts individual learning plans, small class sizes and the International Baccalaureate program.
"I'm standing here telling people that this has nothing to do with religion. It's a mechanical technique," Beall said during a meeting Thursday night for parents interested in enrolling their children in the school.
"It requires no religious or philosophical belief. ... Our contract with the state is our charter, and we're going to obey that."
State officials are talking to experts about TM in response to the parents' complaints.
Like other schools that receive public money, Carolina International School isn't allowed to include religion as part of its curriculum and must give its students the same End of Grade tests that public school students take.
N.C. law allows up to 100 charter schools, which are privately run and publicly funded. A Charter School Advisory Committee recommends schools to the N.C. State Board of Education, which authorizes the schools with a charter. Carolina International received its charter in January.
It would be the first charter school in Cabarrus County and the county's first school to offer the International Baccalaureate program geared toward students who can do accelerated work. The school has already enrolled more than 300 students, and more than 200 others are on a waiting list, Beall said. About 60 percent are from Mecklenburg County, 40 percent are from Cabarrus County and a few are from Stanly County, he said.
Beall received several graduate degrees related to education from the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, which was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1981 he helped established Maharishi Middle and Upper Schools in Iowa, where he served for 10 years as middle and high school principal, social studies teacher and coach.
People who use Transcendental Meditation learn to focus on a mantra to let stress and other distractions slip away.
Critics, however, say the trademarked practice can cause depression, anxiety and other side effects, and say they worry the practice will involve more than 10 minutes of relaxation.
TM is rare in schools, but not unheard of. Students at one Detroit charter school practice TM daily. High school students in a Georgia public school district took part in a study into whether TM could affect their blood pressure and response to stress.
N.C. charter school officials say they've heard about a half-dozen complaints about the Cabarrus County school and are researching whether the meditation technique has ties to religion."If that has been determined to be religion, then that can't be part of the school. It's really that simple," said Michael Fedewa, chairman of the state charter school advisory committee.
Workers at the state office of charter schools are trying to sort out whether TM has religious links and will report back, possibly as early as April 8.
State charter school leaders have questioned the school's plans to offer TM in the past, but never did outside research on the topic, Fedewa said. The charter school advisory board asked Beall and other Carolina International School leaders to come in a few months ago for a meeting to talk about TM.
"In all cases, they looked us dead in the eye and said `This is not religion. There is no religion being taught,' " Fedewa said. "They appear to have answered our questions forthrightly and to our satisfaction."
That's not enough for Beverly Henley, a Harrisburg parent who said she doesn't think state charter school officials took the time to investigate TM fully. Henley said she started looking into the school for her own children, but now opposes taxpayer funding for it because she says the religious tie is clear.
"It sounds like the (charter school advisory board) asked him, `Is this TM a religion?' and he said, `No.' So they said, `It needs to stay that way.' "
Carruth, the county commissioner, said if Carolina International School is allowed to open using TM, then he'd encourage Christian schools to apply for charter school status so they, too, could receive public funding.
"Why not? To me, that shows that's how they interpret the law," he said.
Thursday's meeting heated up when critics challenged Beall's explanation that TM is simply a peaceful moment of reflection and has nothing to do with religion.
Some questioned whether students would be forced to go further than meditation, perhaps having to watch teachers undergo a ceremony that allows them to teach TM.
They also cited a 1977 federal court ruling in which a judge in New Jersey ruled that Transcendental Meditation was a religious practice and cannot be funded in public schools.
"It's a restated form of Hinduism. I believe that's the real question here," said Cindy Picarella, a Cabarrus County resident. "I would like to put my child here, but I cannot put my child in this school because I believe it is a religion. ... And I still have to pay for it, but I don't want to pay for it."
Beall responded: "TM isn't a religious experience for me, and it shouldn't be for a student....
"We're going to make sure everybody involved in this understands what it's about."