Can charter schools be separated from religious foundation?

Sunday, September 7, 1997

Charter schools — the hottest trend in public education — are igniting
some First Amendment controversies in communities nationwide.


Charter schools are formed by groups of citizens, such as parents,
teachers, or others, using public funds. Although these schools
are required to meet state standards — some states are more restrictive
than others — they are free to develop innovative approaches to
curriculum and school policy. Currently, nearly 500 of them are
operating in 15 states, with another 300 expected to open within
a year. There may be as many as 3,000 charter schools by the year
2000, now that federal grants are available to help launch them.


Their popularity with parents is undeniable. In Michigan this
year, one charter school had more than 5,000 applications for
some 300 places.


Not surprisingly, such rapid growth also precipitates problems,
some of which concern the First Amendment. A recent example comes
from Los Angeles, where the principal of a proposed charter school
plans to use teaching methods developed by L. Ron Hubbard, founder
of the Church of Scientology. L.A. school-district officials are
now trying to decide if that approach violates the Establishment
clause of the First Amendment.


A number of other school districts in California are fighting
over a similar question: Can the Waldorf approach to education
be used in publicly funded charter or magnet schools? Waldorf
education is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, founder
of the Anthroposophical Society. Steiner's concept of “spiritual
science” is presently incorporated into more than 125 private
Waldorf schools in the United States.


The debate could be quickly settled if the issue was whether
or not to teach Scientology or Anthroposophy in a public school.
The movements founded by Hubbard and Steiner are religious by
almost any definition of the word, and the First Amendment prohibits
public schools from promoting any religious or spiritual movement.


But advocates of the educational methods associated with these
movements believe they can be adapted for use in a public school.
One teacher, herself a Scientologist, argues that the disputed
teaching method is not based on Hubbard's religious doctrine but
on his “Applied Scholastics,” which is nonsectarian.
Using a similar argument, Waldorf proponents claim that their
method can be separated from the religious aspects of Steiner's
philosophy. Opponents counter that religious teachings are the
basis for both of these educational techniques, and that to allow
their use in a publicly funded school would violate the Establishment
clause.


Sorting out these arguments will be a complex and controversial
task for school boards. In my view, it is difficult, if not impossible,
to separate these teaching methods from their religious foundation.
Even if, for example, the Waldorf training for public school teachers
manages to avoid mentioning Steiner and his ideas about the soul,
the entire approach to the curriculum is based on fundamental
spiritual precepts that shape what should be taught and how it
should be done.


The controversy surrounding religious teaching in charter schools
is part of a larger debate about whether or not these schools
are sufficiently accountable to the taxpayers. Proponents argue
that charter schools should be as autonomous as possible so that
they can provide real alternatives to regular public schools.
Opponents contend that lack of accountability may lead to ideological
schools that divide Americans and undermine the “common school”
ideal.


Despite the problems and controversies, there is growing public
support for the charter school idea. Are such schools effective?
It's too early to tell. Studies now underway should provide some
solid data in the next several years. Meanwhile, as charter schools
multiply, school districts should make sure that the curriculum
and policies adopted by these schools are consistent with the
principles of the First Amendment.