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Charter schools test church and state boundary

Kindergarten children at Maple Village School in Long Beach California, a private Waldorf school,  doing a wet-on-wet watercolor experience in which they blend colors on the paper. The Waldorf emphasizes creative development over rote learning, especially
Kindergarten children at Maple Village School in Long Beach California, a private Waldorf school, doing a wet-on-wet watercolor experience in which they blend colors on the paper. The Waldorf emphasizes creative development over rote learning, especially in the early grades.
Photo by Michelle Saavedra / Used with permission from Maple Village School

Walk into any Waldorf-inspired charter school, and you enter a different world of public education where students sing songs, stamp out math with their feet, carve wood, play recorders and draw maps.

You'll also find students outside. "If you are going to learn about science, the best place to do it is outside," said Allegra Allesandri, principal at a Waldorf-inspired public high school in Sacramento, Calif. "Nature is our textbook."

Based on the work of an Austrian mystic philosopher named Rudolph Steiner, there are now more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in more than 90 countries. Waldorf-inspired public charter schools are also booming in the U.S., with more than 40 now operating, mostly in Western states.

The emergence of a public Waldorf movement has some critics less than charmed. Lurking behind the Waldorf method and permeating its classroom, they argue, is a mystical philosophy that amounts to a religion. They point to what they view as rituals in the classroom, the reading of verses from the program's controversial founder, and the insistence that teachers be formally trained at Waldorf colleges.

These concerns have spawned an ongoing legal battle led by an odd coalition of secular humanists and fundamentalist Christians. The litigation has dragged on since 1996. The latest action occurred earlier this month, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling on a narrow technicality, found in favor of the Waldorf charters.

As charter schools proliferate and parents look for alternatives to mediocre or rigid public schools, controversy follows, often centered on the differences that make these charter schools appealing to parents.

"We've had complaints all over the country about problems with charter schools inculcating religion," said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Charter schools, by definition, are meant to be disruptive and nonconventional. Some offer parents a chance to retain unique cultural identities or find alternative instructional models, but they also often walk a fine line, Luchenitser said.

In Minnesota, a charter school emphasized Arabic studies and appealed directly to Muslim students. It closed recently for unrelated reasons. In Florida, a cluster of Jewish-oriented charter schools teach Hebrew and Jewish culture but eschew religion. After a brief dispute in their infancy, Luchenitser said, the Florida schools have toed the line. More controversially, Scientology has made recent hotly disputed inroads in Florida. And then there is the ongoing litigation against Waldorf-inspired charter schools in California.

What's a religion?

In the mid-1990s, Dan Dugan had a child in a private Waldorf school in San Francisco. One day he was at the school bookstore and came across some quotes from Rudolph Steiner on race and intelligence that he found disturbing. "Blond hair actually bestows intelligence," Steiner had written in one passage.

"I was willing to understand that Steiner was a person of his time," Dugan said. "I just wanted them to repudiate those statements. But they would never do that. They wanted to say that some of Steiner was 'difficult' to understand."

More questions and objections followed. Dugan became increasingly skeptical about what he considered to be the mystical underpinnings of classroom ritual and teaching methods. Ultimately, he joined a few other parents in challenging the use of Waldorf methods in public schools, arguing that the methods are tightly bound to Steiner's philosophy of "anthroposophy," which is itself a religion, they insist.

Like an ancient Greek or European Renaissance philosopher, Steiner felt entitled to offer opinions on just about everything. He embraced the ancient theory of humors in the body, formed theories of physiology and light and was an enthusiast of Emerson, Goethe and of Eastern mysticism. In 1924, he offered a reincarnation genealogy of a number of famous men. Emerson, he said, was in an earlier life the Roman writer Tacitus.

Steiner's philosophy offers a detailed conception of human development and of how the soul, spirit and body interact as a child grows to adulthood. When he founded his first school in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, he told his teachers that their mission is not "simply a matter of intellect or feeling, but, in the highest sense, as a moral spiritual task" requiring a strong link "from the very beginning between our activity and the spiritual worlds."

Advocates of private Waldorf education are emphatic that Steiner's spiritual philosophy undergirds his educational methods. A true Waldorf education is only possible where teachers are "free to work out of a clear recognition of and commitment to the development of the spiritual nature of the human being," reads an official position statement from the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Defenders of public Waldorf-inspired charter schools argue that anthroposophy is not a religion, and in any case that the public charter schools using the approach do not teach or use its mystical underpinnings. They point instead to a transformative educational philosophy that emphasizes art, stories, physical movement, social interaction and a firm grounding in nature and in the natural rhythms of life.

Waldorf schools are into rhythm, including the rhythm of a day, of the seasons and of life. Math is taught with motion and stomping, daily routines are carefully observed and marked with reassuring rituals, and seasonal changes are brought into the classroom via a "nature table," where natural objects are displayed.

Waldorf education offers a "unique view of the human being," said Patrice Maynard of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. "The child is not just body and mind, but body, soul and spirit. Waldorf recognizes that aspirations, inspirations, idealism and love are spiritual qualities as important to the growth as physical nourishment." The trouble, Maynard argues, is that "the way the laws of the land have been interpreted, any mention of spirit has been forbidden."

Waldorf classrooms

Waldorf schools also emphasize sensory comfort. Classrooms are often furnished in wood, and lighting is more subdued. Allesandri also said that the classrooms are managed with more soothing routines, and dimmed lights or a candle might serve as cues that in a traditional classroom might involve a whistle or a teacher's loud voice.

Waldorf classrooms emphasize the "health-giving power of routine in a child's life," Maynard said. "Every day has a rhythm, and a child finds ease in the comfort that the rhythm will be reliable." Maynard describes visiting a class on "bread roll day," which the students gleefully announced to her. "The little child is smelling, touching and tasting," Maynard said.

Among these rhythmic routines are "nature tables," which bring pieces of nature and the seasons into the classrooms, creating conversation pieces. Critics have characterized these tables as "altars." But supporters say they are no different from the ubiquitous boards in mainstream classrooms with construction paper cut-outs such as snowmen or turkeys.

Waldorf critics also look to teacher training. Michael Bush at the Pacific Justice Foundation questions the pressure on public school teachers to receive formal training at Waldorf teacher colleges. "If the techniques are valid," Bush said, "then let them teach them to teachers outside the system. For whatever reason, they insist on everything going through the Rudolph Steiner schools." Bush argues that the closed and inbred character of the system adds to the cultish aura.

The classroom question

The key legal question seems to be whether Waldorf-inspired public schools can use Steiner's unique philosophy of child development without moving into the spiritual space.

Kevin Snider, chief counsel for the Pacific Justice Institute, a litigation group that typically defends Christians in the public square, argued the case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He describes a "curveball" thrown at the oral arguments by Judge Randy Smith. According to Snider, Smith hinted that a public school could be "run by a group that admits they are a religion but that doesn't mean it violates the disestablishment clause." In other words, Smith suggested, a school run by religious people that avoids religion in the classroom might pass constitutional muster.

In its narrow ruling, the court did not answer this question. But while Smith's suggestion that religious groups could sponsor a secular school has yet to find authoritative judicial voice, it has become widely accepted almost by silent consent.

The ACLU challenged a Muslim-sponsored charter school in Minnesota, alleging that it blurred the line. That school later closed for other reasons, making the challenge moot.

But the Ben Gamla Hebrew School in Florida has survived unscathed by teaching Hebrew and emphasizing Jewish culture but not teaching religion. Shortly after its 2007 founding, that school had a brief confrontation with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But the school revised its curriculum, said AUSCS associate legal director Alex Luchenitser, and "they are being very careful and aware that there are serious legal issues."

Belief systems

Steiner's philosophy underlies the theory but does not enter the classroom, says Will Stapp of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education. "It's based on a developmental model, the unfolding of the human being, working from will-based to feeling-based to blossoming of abstract reason.

Stapp objects to the push toward rigid standards embodied in the No Child Left Behind law. "Developmental theory has been thrown out the window," he said. "Now sooner is better. Standards push younger and younger into kindergarten. Kids have to sit still. They use computers rather than play-based movement or activities with social development."

Responding to the charges of ritual in the Waldorf classroom, Maynard said that a visiting alien could reach the same conclusion about testing rituals in mainstream classrooms.

All educational philosophies rest on some transcendent base, Waldorf defenders argue. "When we become militant about anything, it becomes a belief system. We are here to create an open space for kids to grow and learn and think critically. If we are insisting on environmentalism or feminism or secular humanism, we are not creating that space," Allessandri said.