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Charter schools test church and state boundary

Published: Wednesday, June 13 2012 11:53 p.m. MDT

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.

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