FAIRFIELD, Iowa — Here in the American headquarters of Transcendental Meditation, people like to brag that, much as in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, "all the children are above average."
"The children are so enthusiastic to do things — competitions, academics and so on," said Ashley Deans, headmaster of Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, a private K-12 academy with about 300 students. "And when they enter it, they win it — time and time again."
The secret, school officials say, is Transcendental Meditation — the practice of invoking a state of deep relaxation by mentally repeating a word, or mantra.
Advocates say TM can spread success at other schools, and groups promoting it recently have appeared at public schools in New York, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and other places.
But critics, and there are plenty, say Transcendental Meditation in public schools straddles the line between church and state, and that other forms of meditation would be just as effective for students.
"I would call it a stealth religion," said Barry Markovsky, a University of South Carolina sociologist who researches social networks. "I would ask whether this is a group I would want to have teaching my children stress-reduction techniques."
Transcendental Meditation is a trademark technique brought to the United States by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu monk who became guru to The Beatles, Mia Farrow and other celebrities in the 1960s. In the '70s, he bought the bankrupt Parsons College in this southeastern Iowa city of about 10,000 and established Maharishi University of Management.
Followers recently formed the Consciousness-Based Education Association to provide "scientifically validated educational programs, technologies, and consulting service for new schools, existing schools and after-school organizations," according to the group's Web site.
"You have 10 million kids on antidepressants, one in five black kids with hypertension, America not leading the world in test scores," said Bob Roth, spokesman for the Consciousness-Based Education Association. "Transcendental Meditation is not just a way to reduce stress, it's a way to prepare a student to learn."
Roth said his group is not actively approaching schools but rather providing information when asked.
"A school day can get pretty stressful," said Maharishi School sophomore Cooper Rose during a break from math class. "Being able to meditate every day gives you a chance to settle, and to get a nice basis for the day on your mind."
Maharishi School officials are quick to point out that their students have scored in the 99th percentile on standardized tests for the past 10 years; that 95 percent of graduates go to college; and that they graduate 10 times the national average of National Merit Scholar finalists.
Critics contend most private schools that charge $12,000 a year for high school tuition likely would be able to post similar numbers. University of Iowa education professor Nick Colangelo also notes that studies indicating benefits of TM have yet to break into some of the main education journals and, until that happens, "I think everybody's going to be a skeptic on it."
Still, public schools in Detroit and Washington, D.C., have incorporated TM into their students' daily routines. Educators there say it helps reduce stress and behavioral problems in the inner-city schools.
As principal of the Fletcher-Johnson Learning Center in Washington, George Rutherford introduced TM to his students in 1994.
"We were in a situation where we were at the center of drugs, of homicides in our area of Washington," said Rutherford, a TM practitioner himself. "Johnson became a safe haven for our neighborhood."
A big stumbling block for widespread use in schools could be cost, with schools having to pay about $625 a year per student for TM training.
At Nataki Taliba Schoolhouse in Detroit, a public charter school where students practiced TM, the cost is covered by private donations and corporate grants from the likes of Daimler-Chrysler and General Motors.
"It's something that many will carry with them into high school and adulthood," said Jane Pitt, the TM counselor at Nataki Taliba.
Skeptics say any form of meditation could accomplish the same results touted by TM advocates — without the religious undertones.
The issue hasn't been widely explored in court, though a federal judge in New Jersey ruled in 1977 against teaching TM and the Science of Creative Intelligence, a parallel instruction method, in a public high school.
"What they're doing is singing praises to Hindu gods," Markovsky said. "Are you practicing religion if you don't know it? It's arguable, but the religious basis is clear for anybody to see."
Rutherford, a Baptist, denies any religious element to TM. "I'm not going to let anything take away from what I believe in," he said.