The state education department has given preliminary approval to statewide use of school textbooks inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that already are at the center of a controversy in Los Angeles schools.
Five books based on Hubbard's education ideas are expected to be placed on a list of supplementary texts that schools across the state can purchase--possibly as soon as September, an education official said Monday.
"There's no religion mentioned in those books," said Anna Emery of the state Department of Education office that oversees the approval of supplemental textbooks. "They don't say anything about Scientology."
The action makes the books eligible, but not mandatory, for purchase and use by local school districts.
Under state education guidelines, schools can spend 30% of their textbook budgets on such supplemental materials when the texts meet minimum content requirements that govern such things as the depiction of ethnic groups and references to religion.
A 20-member citizens committee--one of many across the state selected by state and county education officials--reviewed the Hubbard works and approved them for the list after requiring a series of revisions, said Emery, an analyst with the curriculum, frameworks and instructional resources office at the state Department of Education.
Emery said some members of the panel expressed concerns about the use of the books because of the link to Hubbard, the controversial religious leader whose name is featured prominently on the front of the books.
The books, which teach a learning method known as Applied Scholastics, are published by Bridge Publications, which also produces literature for the Church of Scientology. But the panelists could find no legal reason to deny the works a place on the list on the basis of religion, Emery said.
"They were not real thrilled about it," Emery said. "The name L. Ron Hubbard made them not want to approve it. But they had no choice."
The proposed use of Hubbard-inspired texts has drawn attention because of the religious nature of Scientology, which has been variously criticized as a cult and a profit-driven enterprise since Hubbard began it in the early 1950s. Critics, including former Scientologists, contend that the works are simply an extension of Hubbard's religious teachings.
But the citizens panel weighed 13 criteria drawn from the state education code in evaluating the texts, including one that bars texts from encouraging religious beliefs.
The panel, Emery said, could find no violation of the guideline on religion. Instead, the panel required Bridge to make changes in the ways the texts portrayed men and women and the disabled, and to add more ethnic minorities to the text or illustrations.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials expressed concern when they were told of the state's action. The Hubbard-inspired texts have been the subject of controversy because of a proposal by a teacher who is a Scientologist to open a charter school in the Sunland-Tujunga area that would feature the Applied Scholastics works. A few other district teachers say they have been using the Hubbard-based texts and methods in their classrooms for years.
During a closed-door meeting to discuss possible church-state conflicts raised by the charter school proposal, the Los Angeles Board of Education decided Monday to seek an outside legal opinion from a constitutional law expert.
"The plot thickens," said school board President Julie Korenstein. "We'll have to let our attorneys know about this. We somewhat take our orders from the state Department of Education. When they have an approved list, we go to that approved list. This is all brand new information. It's a total surprise."
Administrators at Applied Scholastics, a private company in Hollywood that promotes the Hubbard teaching methods, applauded the state's decision.
"I think this is fabulous news," said Rena Weinberg, an Applied Scholastics spokeswoman. "I think it is very fitting because these sound educational principles are being recognized as they should, considering they have been in use so many years."
Advocates say the Hubbard methods help students improve by removing three fundamental barriers to learning: students use dictionaries to look up words they do not understand in a process known as "word clearing," they apply their lessons to real life and they master each rung of material to obtain a thorough understanding of a subject.
Critics, including former Scientologists, contend that the learning methods are a means of drawing new adherents into Scientology. The critics note, for example, the similarity between the "word clearing" principle taught in Applied Scholastics and the process of "clearing" away negative past experiences through Scientology courses.
Bridge Publications submitted the Applied Scholastics texts to the state in May 1996. The texts were reviewed by the citizens panel, and Bridge was notified of the need for three sets of changes:
Women, who had originally been depicted in passive roles, had to be shown in more dominant ways; for example, the revised versions had one woman riding a tractor.
Bridge also was required to add more ethnic groups, which it did by including more illustrations of minorities.
The publisher also was required to include disabled people in the books, which it did by showing them in wheelchairs, Emery said.
The panel approved Bridge's revisions Wednesday. The books could be included in the September version of a catalog the state distributes to school districts three times a year announcing books on the supplemental list.