Lawsuit against Waldorf revived

Critics say the public schools' teaching method is religious

Sacramento Bee/March 31, 2003
By Bill Lindelof

John Morse Waldorf School in south Sacramento and the Yuba River Charter School in Nevada City are once again targets in a legal battle that seeks to ban any public school in America from using Waldorf teaching methods.

The group that filed the lawsuit against them contends that the Waldorf system cannot be separated from founder Rudolf Steiner's religious philosophy -- so the public Waldorf schools are sectarian and ineligible to receive taxpayer dollars.

Debra Snell, president of People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools and a former Waldorf parent, said it boils down to a question of fairness. "If Catholic or Lutheran schools cannot be publicly funded, then neither can Waldorf, " she said.

Her organization has filed a federal lawsuit in Sacramento contending that the public Waldorf schools violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Those who run the Waldorf public schools say the lawsuit is unfounded and misses the point. "We teach about religion, but we don't teach religion," Principal Cheryl Eining said of her 270-student school in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

About a half-dozen public Waldorf schools operate in Northern California using teaching methods pioneered by Steiner. Sacramento City Unified's first Waldorf school was established in 1996.

An unlikely coalition of conservative Christians, agnostics and atheists joined forces in February 1998 to sue Sacramento City Unified and the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which sponsors the Yuba River Charter School.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 10 reinstated the lawsuit brought by People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools against the two school districts. It could go to trial this year.

"John Morse should receive a passing grade by the end of the lawsuit," said Christian Keiner, a Sacramento City Unified lawyer.

Nationally, there are at least two dozen public Waldorf schools.

Elk Grove attorney Scott Kendall represents the organization suing the school districts. Kendall said about $18,000 has been contributed to the effort by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Christian legal defense organization founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and others.

The ultimate goal of the lawsuit, Kendall said, is to end all public funding for Waldorf schools in the United States.

"There is substantial evidence that they are continuing to violate the Constitution" by teaching the views of the Austrian philosopher, Kendall said. "From the beginning, our position has been that when you are using Waldorf methods, the teachings are so completely linked to the religion of anthroposophy that there is no way to separate it."

According to the Dictionary of World Religions, anthroposophy was developed when Steiner tried to "develop a view of reality based on direct perception of the spirit world."

Steiner had designed the program in 1919 for the children of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory employees, placing an emphasis on music, art and literature. The lessons were tailored to children's physical, emotional and spiritual growth.

Robert T. Carroll, a professor in the philosophy department at Sacramento City College, said anthroposophy has a strong spiritual element but is more of a philosophy than a religion.

Steiner believed teachers can teach directly to the spirit and "that we can learn to perceive directly by the spirit," Carroll said.

Steiner also believed that children pass through three seven-year stages, and that education should be appropriate to the spirit for each stage, he said.

Waldorf teaching methods differ from many public schools' curricula and have encountered criticism for not teaching children to read until they are older. Waldorf educators believe that not all children are developmentally ready to read by kindergarten.

That is why some parents prefer John Morse, where formal reading is taught midway through the first grade. Because of its approach, the school has a waiting list.

Principal Eining said Morse students don't score as well in the early grades, compared with students at similar schools. "But as they progress, through the years, if they have been here the whole time, they do very well, if not better."

Waldorf stresses socialization skills -- learning how to get along with other students, being polite and working together.

In the Waldorf method, the ABCs and other tools traditionally used to teach reading and other subjects take a back seat to telling stories, drawing pictures and reciting for the first year or two.

At Morse, a two-hour main lesson block in the morning focuses on the most concentrated work of the day. After lunch, depending on grade level, students are instructed in Spanish, dance, music and handwork such as knitting, embroidery and sewing.

They also participate in nature walks, painting, woodworking, cooking and gardening.

Krissa Connelley disagrees that Waldorf imposes religion. Two of her daughters have graduated from the Yuba River Charter School, and she has a third-grader enrolled. She said the church-state question is "ridiculous."

"I would not have had my kids here if there was religion being taught," said Connelley, who also works as a receptionist at the charter school.

Waldorf instruction began in the Sacramento school district in Oak Ridge Elementary in Oak Park in March 1996. By 1997, administrators had to fend off claims that the school was teaching witchcraft. Dan Dugan, a Bay Area activist with a goal to rid public schools of all such Waldorf teachings, led the protest then and now.

The picketing didn't end the program, but it was transferred to another campus -- the former John Morse Elementary School at 1901 60th Ave. Students who preferred traditional instruction remained at Oak Ridge.

About the same time, parent Snell was having a falling out with school officials at the Yuba River Charter School because she was alarmed at what she perceived as the religious nature of the Waldorf charter.

"Our intention is to put Waldorf schools back in the private sector where they belong," she said.

A common complaint against public Waldorf schools revolves around so-called "nature tables," which are spreads of natural articles such as leaves and bark that kindergarten children gather at Morse.

They are arrayed on tables. Snell's organization argues that the tables are inherently spiritual because anthroposophy endows nature with spiritual meaning.

Dugan contends the displays are pagan altars because some schools light a candle on the table and say a prayer to the sun.

But Morse parents say Dugan is taking the nature tables out of context. They are simply ways to teach nature, storytelling and the seasons, they said.

Parent David Kuchera likes the "holistic" approach to education, exemplified in the school motto: "Head, Heart & Hands."

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