The Charter Schools federal court case - is Waldorf education religious?

By Robert Freehling

For some years now, People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS) has been pursuing legal action against two school districts in the US state of California for using Waldorf teaching methods. PLANS claims that the Sacramento Unified School District and  the Twin Ridges Elementary School teach religion in their schools in breach of the US constitution because their teaching is based on Waldorf education methods. 

The schools dismiss the charge and respond that while they successfully apply the Waldorf method in their teaching, they do not teach the content of anthroposophy or Rudolf Steiner’s writings. 

In the most recent development, the Sacramento federal district court threw out the case on the grounds that PLANS lacked standing to be a proper plaintiff. The case is by no means finished, however, since PLANS has already submitted an appeal. Robert Freehling presents the background to the case.

Sacramento, 19 September (NNA) -  This May saw an important milestone in the efforts of a small but determined group to close down all public Waldorf schools: their lawsuit was thrown out by a federal district court. The group, called People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS), claims that Waldorf education is religious, and therefore should not be supported by the government, as this violates the proper separation of church and state guaranteed by the US constitution. 

Their strategy has focused on a legal case against two California public schools, the Yuba River Charter School in the Sierra foothills, and John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet in the city of Sacramento. 

The case was dismissed because the court ruled that PLANS lacked standing to be a proper plaintiff. Since PLANS originally brought the suit as taxpayers, this defined their standing as a party who could claim they had been harmed. Judge Damrell, who presided in the case, had ruled in favour of the plaintiff last year, agreeing that PLANS could represent its taxpaying members even though it is a non-profit, and therefore non-taxpaying, entity. 

The issue of standing was raised early on, but this year saw a new twist from a related ruling by a federal appeals court in New York. The case involved the Altmans, a Roman Catholic family, who took the Bedford Central School District to court for instruction and activities that violated their religious beliefs. The Altmans removed their children from the school pending the outcome of the legal efforts. Because the Altmans no longer had children in the school, the court ruled out parts of the case that alleged personal harm to them as taxpayers.

Judge Damrell was sufficiently impressed with defence lawyers’ arguments showing the significance of the Altman case that he overturned his previous ruling.

This was not the only setback for PLANS in the case. They had earlier offered testimony by half a dozen self-appointed experts on Waldorf methods, including two of the directors of PLANS. According to the defence lawyer, one was withdrawn, and the court ruled that four of the others did not qualify as experts. The sixth was accepted as an expert on protestant religious beliefs, but not on Waldorf education.

PLANS contends that the religious philosophy of anthroposophy is inextricably linked to Waldorf education, and that the children are being taught anthroposophy through a curriculum that is saturated with its influence and ideas. The public Waldorf schools, on the other hand, contend that all religious language, verses and other content that would be used in a private Waldorf school are carefully combed through to avoid conflict with the principles of public education. Yet, PLANS has no intention of dropping the matter, and has already appealed the case. Lawyers do not expect any resolution for at least a year.

The courts have been struggling for years with this issue. The first amendment prohibits the US Congress from passing any laws “respecting an establishment of religion....” At the founding of the country, this was a simple matter, merely meaning that the US should not establish an official, tax-supported, state-enforced religion, as the countries of Europe all had. Education was not part of the picture, because there was no state-supported education until many years later.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the relation between state, education and religion really began to enter the courts. The most famous case was the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in the 1920s, regarding a school teacher who presented Darwinian evolution to his class. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) instigated the case to test the constitutionality of the state’s law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. After much publicity, the teacher was found guilty, and fined one hundred dollars.

In the 1960s the tenor of the debate shifted radically after the American atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair put forced school prayer on trial before the Supreme Court. The court ruled in her favour that children should not be compelled to say anything in class with religious content. Since then there has been extensive argument both in and out of the courts as to what is, or what should be, allowable. As the issues are decided in successive cases, the rules seem to get both more restrictive and more complex.

Behind the planning of PLANS

PLANS, which claims over 40 members, is led by the triumvirate of Debra Snell, Dan Dugan, and Lisa Ercolano. All of them have significant connections to Waldorf. Debra Snell, a resident of Grass Valley, California actually helped to found the Waldorf Charter school there. Dan Dugan is a parent who claims to have fallen in love with Waldorf about a decade ago, especially its beautiful classroom materials, as well as its emphasis on creativity and the arts. 

He placed his child in a private Waldorf school. He started reading up on the background of Waldorf, including the writings of its creator, Rudolf Steiner, about whom he knew nothing.

Mr. Dugan read a number of Steiner’s books which contained passages that he interpreted as racist and aspects of the curriculum that he considered to be anti-scientific. So he approached the school with a proposal that they “modernise” their science curriculum. The school refused. They told him, according to his account, that people came to the school for the spiritual philosophy, and that if he didn’t approve he could leave. 

Mr. Dugan interpreted the lack of dialogue on the issue as being secretive, undemocratic and opposed to rational science. This impression was strengthened as he found out that the philosophy was based on the occult, by which he understood “hidden” teachings, and that these were somehow connected with an historical lineage of secretive mystery schools which had access to “higher knowledge” beyond the comprehension or critical evaluation of the uninitiated. 

Later Mr. Dugan found other parents, including Ms. Snell, and ex-Waldorf teachers who formed a group called Critics of Waldorf, where they share their experiences. When the Waldorf schools moved into the public arena, in tax-supported charter schools, this group became alarmed and decided to take the schools to court. 

Charter Schools

Charter schools have become popular across the United States in the past decade as a viable alternative to ordinary state-managed curricula. Each charter school is supposed to be given broad latitude to adopt its own approach according to the interest of local educators, parents and, hopefully, children. The initiating group is given a charter by a “chartering agency,” usually either the state or a local school district. Accountability standards are required to be, and generally are, equal or greater than those for other public schools, and the charter goes up for renewal every few years.

While increased choice of curriculum is a principal aim of charter laws, this freedom may have a rope attached. About 80% of chartering agencies nationwide report rejecting schools for curriculum reason and 60%  had schools make changes in their curriculum in order to get approval. 

California law really opened the door on the charter movement in 1998, in which year it allowed for up to 250 charter schools to be created, and 100 new schools a year thereafter. 

Unlike in a regular school, parents must sign a petition, prior to starting the school, stating intent to enrol their children. Attendance at such schools represents a real choice for the parents as well as the teachers, as the law states that no student or teacher can be assigned to one by compulsion. In addition, and importantly for the Waldorf charter schools, state and federal charter law provides that a charter school must be non-sectarian in its programmes, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations.

Waldorf Meets the World

The Waldorf charter schools challenged by PLANS have done particularly well by objective measures used by the districts and the state. Both schools have won awards for their programs, and this year the Yuba River Charter School upper grades ranked first in their county on reading scores. 

This is a particular victory for Waldorf, which has often been criticized for delaying the teaching of reading until second or third grade. It also won a grant to allow its model form of governance to be emulated by other schools throughout the state. This unique system involves parents, teachers and charter council to all have a say in running the school.

It is well to keep in mind that public education, and not just Waldorf, has been subjected to court cases and public challenge on many of the same issues, including religion. On the one side are some who think that their religion is being suppressed and their children corrupted by tax-supported educators who teach Darwinian atheism and deny them the right to pray. On the other side are those who object to any religious connections, no matter how toned down, remote or indirect.

Copyright 2001 News Network Anthroposophy Limited. All rights reserved.

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