Charter school funding draws criticism

A local county commissioner has asked the state for a review of the application for the county’s first charter school.

Bob Carruth asked the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to review Carolina International School on the grounds that it has a religious affiliation and therefore should not be supported by public money.

“I am very concerned with using our local tax dollars to fund a school that has worked very hard to hide open religious instruction in its curriculum,” Carruth said. “I have no problem with charter schools, but I do have a problem with providing public funding to a school based on religious philosophies.”

Jackie Jenkins, a DPI educational consultant for the charter school advisory committee, said she has forwarded all correspondence regarding Carolina International School to the committee, and it can determine if more questions need to be asked of the school.

“They will evaluate whether or not the school needs to be called back in for more questions,” she said.

The concern

The school’s educational program includes the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Primary Years Program and optional instruction in the Transcendental Mediation [sic] program for interested teachers and students in grades five through seven, with parent permission.

Beall said the response by the public is a significant development, one he regrets.

“It’s unfortunate that this misinformation is being distributed without people talking to me,” he said.

Carruth has asked for an administrative review to determine the connections between Carolina International and the Maharishi Institute and the Vedic philosophy and transcendental meditation.

Other people in the community are also concerned.

Greg and Cindy Picarella of Concord have sent e-mails to state officials asking them to stop paying for Carolina International School because they say transcendental meditation and natural law according to Maharishi masks itself in science but is actually religion-based.

“It is in fact tied to eastern spirituality, derived from Hinduism, and should not be an offering in a public school, and in no way tied to curriculum,” Greg Picarella said. “We respect people’s freedom to practice whatever religion they choose, however, we did not think the state was in the business of subsidizing religious schools.”

Some people are wondering why the state would approve a school with what they believe are clear ties to a religious group.

Beverly Henley, a resident of Harrisburg who attended one of the school’s introductory meetings, said she believes the basic doctrine of the school is fundamentally rooted in Hinduism.

“If any school with a religious or spiritual affiliation is not legally allowed to be publicly funded, then why has this school, with a clear connection to the doctrine of Hinduism, been approved by our state?” she asked.

She said the public has been deceived into believing that “if the state’s education department approves it, then surely it must be legitimate and within legal bounds.”

Jenkins said when the charter school advisory committee, made up of people appointed by the state board of education, interviewed Beall before approving his charter, there were some questions regarding the offering of transcendental meditation, but all the questions were properly answered.

“At that time, (Beall) assured them it was not religious in nature but rather scientific,” she said. “And the committee told him that needed to be the case.”

The curriculum

Beall said he wants to assure the community that the school’s curriculum is in no way related to Hinduism, or any religion.

“The technique of meditation happened to come from India,” he said. He said he thinks people see the origins of the technique and make assumptions.

“It’s guilt by association,” he said.

Beall said he and his wife Andrea are deeply religious – he was raised Methodist – and they personally practice meditation, but they have kept their religious beliefs out of the school’s curriculum. He said he doesn’t believe his personal beliefs are relevant to the curriculum.

The school will follow the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Primary Years Program, in addition to following the North Carolina standard course of study. The school will follow a structured inquiry approach, with teachers presenting information in such a way that it elicits students’ inquiry and they guide the process and allow flexibility in researching the topic.

Meditation is also part of the curriculum as a way to manage stress, health and creativity, Beall said.

“Charter schools are expected to offer innovative approaches to education,” he said. In his application, Beall wrote that he chose this particular technique because it is “well-researched” but involves “no religious or philosophical belief, no effort, no special posture or lifestyle change.”

Jenkins said the curriculum was one reason the charter school advisory committee approved Carolina International School’s application.

“It met all the state law requirements, and it did have a strong application as far as how it was written,” she said.

The law

A charter school operates like a public school in that it is subject to all public school laws, all applicants are accepted and it must adhere to public school testing standards.

North Carolina public school law 115C-238.29F states a charter school “shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations and shall not charge tuition or fees. A charter school shall not be affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or a religious institution.”

State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, who was involved in the development of the existing charter school law, said based on concerns he has heard, he believes the school’s application for a charter should at least be reviewed.

“There appears to be some question on the basis of the curriculum, and I think (community members) have raised some questions that should be reviewed,” he said.

Jenkins said if the charter school advisory panel does decide to review the school’s application, she doesn’t know when or if that would be done.

Carruth said if the state does allow Carolina International to proceed with the curriculum as is, he will encourage other religious-affiliated groups to apply for public money.

“I will be encouraging every Christian school and home school association in Cabarrus County to immediately begin the process to apply for charter school status, as I see no reason why they shouldn’t be approved,” he said.

Beall invites the community to come to one of the school’s introductory meetings to get more information. The next meeting is Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. at the Harrisburg Town Hall.

“I know this is causing fear and concern, but we have no intention or interest in promoting religion,” he said. “And we haven’t heard all the dimensions of the community’s concern. We don’t know what we are being accused of.”

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