Parents continue fight to rid public schools of Waldorf curriculum

Friday, October 22, 1999

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A federal judge has found that a group of California parents seeking to stop two public schools from using a curriculum it says is religiously based may proceed with its case.

Last year a group of parents and taxpayers, called People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, filed a federal lawsuit against the Sacramento City Unified School District and Twin Ridges Elementary School District. The group claims that the Waldorf education curriculum used by one school in each district is unconstitutional. Waldorf education has its roots in the spiritual-scientific research of the early 19th-century scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School is in the Sacramento district and the Twin ridges district operates the Yuba River Charter School.

The Waldorf education curriculum is based on Steiner's work, called anthroposophy, which focuses on cultivating the child's imagination. In Waldorf education, the arts are integrated into all subjects, including math and science, so as to creatively teach children the substantive concepts. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America there are more than 100 schools nationwide that use the Waldorf curriculum, although most are private schools. The Anthroposophical Society in America says that Steiner, born in Austria, “grew up with the clairvoyant certainty of a spiritual world,” and claimed “the need to reconcile the experience of supersensible realities with that of the material world.”

The People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, however, argued last summer before U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell that “the primary purpose and effect of Waldorf education is to advance religion, specifically the religious doctrines of Anthroposophy,” and that the public schools districts should be barred from using the curriculum.

Lawyers for both public school districts countered that although anthroposophy may be a religion, the Waldorf curriculum was adopted by their school districts for secular reasons and that the lawsuit challenging its use should be dismissed. According to the school districts, the Waldorf curriculum was adopted to educate children in creative ways that would lead to greater racial and ethnic diversity in the inner-city schools.

Debra Snell, president of the parents' group and former board member for a private Waldorf school, said her group had no problems with the Waldorf curriculum being used in private schools.

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“What we are saying is that they do need to be private,” she said. “There is a crack in the wall of separation of church and state (when the curriculum is used in public schools). We are not judging the Waldorf belief system.”

Snell added that she thought the school officials in both districts had failed to understand the religious aspects underpinning the Waldorf curriculum.

In late September, Damrell ruled that the Snell's group had “raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether anthroposophy is so fundamental to Waldorf education as to be inseparable from it, thereby making public funding of Waldorf education methods a direct and substantial (if unintentional) endorsement of religion, and fostering excessive entanglement between church and state.” Damrell told the parties to be ready for trial in February.

Damrell said that the parents' group had presented enough evidence to warrant further hearings to decide whether “informed elementary school students might perceive a message of endorsement of anthroposophy in the use of Waldorf education methods” and whether teachers in both schools are too influenced by anthroposophy. Citing the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Damrell wrote that “we cannot ignore the danger that a teacher under religious control and discipline poses to the separation of the religious from the purely secular aspects of precollege education.”

Both districts have used teacher-training material from the Sacramento-based Rudolf Steiner College. According to the college's Web site, “Steiner hoped that young people would develop capacities of soul and intellect and the strength of will that would prepare them to meet the challenges of their own time and the future.”

Maria Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento district, told Education Week that school officials were disappointed with Damrell's decision but that they would not give up defending the Waldorf curriculum. “The district certainly doesn't feel there is any kind of religious instruction going on,” she said.

Scott M. Kendall, attorney for the parents' group, said the legal challenge is the only one in the nation and therefore could impact the decision of other public school districts to use Waldorf materials.

“I think initially Waldorf supporters present their ideas as nonsectarian and really end up duping school boards into adopting the curriculums,” Kendall said. “Once the school districts become committed they find it difficult to break away from it and the schools maintain that they make great efforts to take any religious components out of the Waldorf materials — we believe that ultimately they are unable to do that.”

In an article for the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Todd Oppenheimer wrote that Waldorf schools might be the world's fastest-growing private schools system and that at least a dozen public schools nationwide had adopted the Waldorf methods “in an effort to enliven classrooms that many educators see as having become sterile job factories.”