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Scientology and the Smiths

June 30, 2008 |  3:02 pm

Oh, my heaven! (Oh, my Hubbard?) Is Will Smith a secret Scientologist? Is that why he appeared in that dreadful sequel to "Men in Black"? If he is (and he says he's not), why is he being so coy about it? Will the private school that he and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith are funding inculcate scientological principles on the impressionable minds of the young students who attend?

And, breathlessly, above all: Why are they being given such a hard time about it?

It's a private school, and Smith & Smith are entitled to fund it according to their educational vision, without having to explain, deny or be coy about their personal beliefs. At least, unlike a celebrity or two we could name, they're not trying to shove beliefs of any sort down our throats. Maybe, as one educator in the know says, the school will cram a lot of Scientology jargon into kids' heads, maybe it actually will make learning more fun by having children learn through experience instead of deadly long lectures, and maybe it will do both.

This is why we have private schools, so that people of any particular belief can frame education according to their own philosophies. Sometimes this means no standardized testing, and sometimes it means Advanced Placement kindergarten.

There is something to be taken from this whole celebrity stew, though. The Smiths' money is the Smiths' call. But what if the taxpayers were called on to pay for kids' education at this school? If the supporters of school vouchers had their way — and they never give up on trying to have their way — this is the kind of question we'd have to confront.

This is why school vouchers are not, as proponents like to frame it, just a way to save students from miserable inner-city schools. Once the public's money is involved, the public should have the right to ask these questions and approve or disapprove of whether a school like the Smiths' would be entitled to a share of that money.

Vouchers aren't just problematic for public schools, or for public expenditure. They're a problem for private schools, too. Once the public is paying, it has the right to demand — and it should demand — good performance from those schools. But how do we measure performance? These days, through standardized tests. So what about schools whose very philosophy runs counter to those tests? The private schools wouldn't just put financial pressure on public schools; the public would be placing subtle financial pressure on private schools to change their ways to make them acceptable for public funding. There goes the beautiful diversity of private schooling.

Is the Smiths' school an example of that beautiful diversity? That's up to the beholder. The important point is that private schooling works best for both private and public schools when it stays private.

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