With Uncle Sam's help, underprivileged kids across the country are being exposed to the ideas of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Scores of public school districts are using a tutoring program with close ties to Scientology, according to tax documents filed by Applied Scholastics International, a nonprofit that promotes Hubbard's teaching methods. The group has government approval to provide federally funded after-school tutoring in 12 states, including California, Texas and Florida.
On its most recent IRS records, Applied Scholastics reported that 248 public schools purchased its services in 2010. The group claims to have provided tutoring to more than 1,600 students.
Applied Scholastics gained a toehold in public education a decade ago through the No Child Left Behind law, one provision of which requires failing schools to offer tutoring to low-income students. Federal funds are used to pay tutors who meet criteria set by each state.
Although religious organizations are eligible to provide secular instruction, Applied Scholastics maintains that its tutoring programs are not connected to the Church of Scientology and are based only on the educational theories of church founder L. Ron Hubbard -- specifically, on a teaching method he developed called study technology, or "study tech."
According to study technology, three barriers prevent people from learning: not having the physical object of what is being studied, not having mastered prior skills, and misunderstanding words.
"Study Technology has as its sole purpose teaching people how to learn," said Christine Gerson, a spokeswoman for Applied Scholastics.
On forms filed with the IRS, no mention is made of Scientology, though "study tech" is a founding principle of the religion.
"I think that the school districts that are buying into this particular program may or may not know that the Church of Scientology is printing this garbage up," said Christine Anderson, a San Antonio mother who got Scientology-linked teaching materials removed from her son's middle school seven years ago.
On a tax filing, Applied Scholastics said that in 2010, it took in $1.3 million from its education and literacy programs. Gerson said that a substantial portion of the $1.3 million was from tutoring. The average cost per student was approximately $680, she said.
Critics discount any distinction between Applied Scholastics and Scientology.
"The claim that they're an independent organization is a fiction," said David Touretzky, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has written extensively about Scientology.
Touretzky said Applied Scholastics is staffed by Scientologists; it familiarizes students with Scientology terms and allows them to become comfortable with its ideas. As an academic program, it lacks credibility, he and others said.
"It's garbage," Touretzky said. "Kids benefit from adults who pay attention to them and are interested in seeing them learn, and so I can't say that Applied Scholastics is worse than nothing. It may be better than nothing. But it's certainly not better than other approaches that could be used."
Gerson responded: "In my experience, the few individuals who have opined against Study Technology do not know enough about it to render a meaningful comment."