Charter schools test church and state boundary

Published: Wednesday, June 13 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

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

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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.

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