Waldorf-style school stirs controversy

Parents claim charter school is not religious
Marin Independent Journal, Aug. 3, 2003
http://www.marinij.com/
By Nancy Isles Nation, IJ reporter

Parents in the Ross Valley are asking the school district to establish a Waldorf-inspired charter to educate the “whole child” but they could run into opposition from others who think such a school should not be publicly funded.

The parents who developed the 88-page Waldorf proposal say the program would take a Waldorf-based approach but will not include religious aspects associated with the private schools.

Critics, however, say the Waldorf method has no place in publicly funded schools because it is based on religion and violates the Constitutional division between church and state.

Parents submitted the proposal to the Ross Valley School District Board of Trustees on June 10. The district has 30 days under state law to hold a public hearing on the issue.

The board has scheduled a meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday at the district office.

The board is not scheduled to make a decision at that time.

“We don’t have any position on it now. We are looking at it and studying it,” said Superintendent Pat Davis.

Parent Laura Leary said at least 13 Waldorf-inspired charters have been approved in the state, including in Novato, and they are different than private Waldorf schools.

“We are interested in the model that is based on how Waldorf education has been adapted to work in a public school setting,” Leary said. “We are not a Waldorf school, we are a school that is informed by the Waldorf-based method.”

Waldorf schools were founded by the Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner, who founded a belief system called anthroposophy in 1924. Merriam Webster defines it as “a 20th century religious system growing out of theosophy and centering on human development.”

Steiner wrote 40 books and published numerous works on science, spirituality and the education of children. Titles include “Christianity as Mystical Fact” and “Occult Science.”

Critics say Steiner’s philosophies are brought into Waldorf classrooms daily in curriculum and in the forms of “seasonal celebrations” they call pagan rituals.

“Waldorf’s appeal is kind of an arts-based program but they are based on a religious system,” said Cindy Ross, mother of a child at Ross Valley’s Manor School in Fairfax. “Saying you want a publicly funded Waldorf school is like saying you want a publicly funded Catholic, or Jewish or Islamic school.”

A Grass Valley-based group, People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools Inc., or PLANS, earlier this year won an appeal in a lawsuit against two Northern California school districts in which it sought to end public school funding of Waldorf schools because they are unconstitutional and “intrinsically and inseparably based upon anthroposophy, a New Age occultic religion.”

According to the lawsuit, curriculum decisions and teacher training for public Waldorf schools are based on the religion’s spirituality-based child development model.

“Waldorf is the missionary arm of anthroposophy,” said Debra Snell, a PLANS founder. “Because it is the missionary arm, they call him (Steiner) a philosopher, but it is a cult.”

Katherine Wilson, administrative assistant at the private Marin Waldorf School in Marinwood, said their program is not religious and not affiliated with any religious organization.

“We embrace celebrations of the year but not in a religious way,” Wilson said.

The Novato Charter School is Waldorf-inspired but the issue of church and state has never been brought up, according to Bill Kuzma, director of the Novato Unified School District’s alternative programs.

Leary said the parents who spent more than two years developing a plan for a public Waldorf school in Ross Valley have been very mindful of the separation of church and state.

The new charter would not have religious icons or daily candle lighting like some private Waldorf schools, Leary said.

Seasonal celebrations would be held to teach children about environmental stewardship because much of the curriculum is nature-based, she said.

Teachers will be required to have California credentials but not Waldorf training.

“We would not preclude them but we would make it very clear that this is a Waldorf methodology that is adapted for a Waldorf setting,” Leary said. “It is necessary to separate out any religious aspect.”

The method emphasizes multi-culturalism, early foreign language experience and community service.

“We find an imaginative context to reach children,” Leary said. “We believe education is an art and is presented in an artistic way.”

This is the second time Ross Valley parents have proposed a Waldorf-style school. Last year a proposal for an alternative school was proposed but proponents later withdrew their request.

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