After 25 years as a stay-home mom, Lilian Cooper decided to start teaching school again.
Education had changed during the time Cooper was away. In her home state of California, charter schools were all the rage. Under the charter concept, private groups and individuals contract with the government to run schools that, while publicly funded, are free from some bureaucracy and red tape. When Cooper learned that a charter school in San Diego was looking for teachers, she eagerly started working on re-establishing her professional credentials.
Officials at Harriet Tubman Village School were happy to have Cooper among a group of aspiring faculty members and signed her up for an extensive program of teacher training during the summer of 1994. But not long into the training, Cooper dropped out. Her experience left her confused, angry and convinced that Tubman Village School is operating in violation of the law.
What happened? Cooper says Tubman, which is a Waldorf school, promotes an offbeat "New Age" religion known as Anthroposophy. Teachers, she said, were told that Anthroposophy is ingrained in the curriculum of the school and that they would be responsible for the spiritual development of their pupils.
"The red flag went up when I was told that I would be responsible for developing the soul consciousness of the children," Cooper says. "They started talking more and more about it &endash; that we were to be responsible for developing the inner lives not only of ourselves but the children. To be a good Waldorf teacher, we had to develop our inner lives in a certain way. What I realized after quitting was that this inner path is the path according to [Waldorf schools founder] Rudolph Steiner."
During one session, Cooper recalls, instructors posted a diagram labeled "Teacher as Priest." Says Cooper, "I thought, 'I can't do this; I have public school credentials.' I just got real scared at that point. I thought I can't do that in a public school...This will never fly. I could really lose my credentials over this."
Cooper's experience became the basis for a formal complaint she filed with the San Diego Board of Education and the Office of the Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Last July, the district's general counsel's office issued a 12-page memo warning that Anthroposophy is a religion and that continued funding of Tubman Village School presents church-state problems. The board, however, refused to defund the school and referred the matter to an independent organization, Far West Laboratories, which is evaluating the school's curriculum. Although due last fall, Far West's report has still not been issued. Meanwhile, Tubman Village School continues to receive public dollars.
The controversy over tax support for Waldorf education is not limited to San Diego. As the charter school concept takes hold, disputes over what constitutes a "public" school are erupting around the nation.
Not all of the disputes focus on Waldorf schools seeking admission to charter programs. In Michigan, the Holy Trinity Church of God in Christ is running TriValley Academy, a publicly funded charter school in Muskegon. The school building is attached to the church, and a bishop helps administer the school. Because state law forbids close ties between charter schools and religious groups, a local college, Grand Valley State University, applied for and owns the charter. But the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has called the arrangement "close to being scandalous." Officials at TriValley say the arrangement is constitutional because religion isn't being taught.
Shortly after charter schools were legalized in Michigan, one of the "schools" that participated in the program was a computerized network that provides support to fundamentalist Christians teaching their children at home. The network was slated to receive $7 million in state money in 1995, but a state court struck down the aid, saying schools must answer to the state Board of Education to get public funds. (That ruling is currently on appeal, and in the wake of the decision Michigan lawmakers passed a revised charter law.)
In Colorado, Cheyenne Mountain Academy, a charter school, sparked controversy when it used a mailing list from the Rocky Mountain Family Council, an affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, to advertise for students. The academy's principal is Linda Page, FOF's former manager of education policy.
Controversy over funding Waldorf schools accounts for the lion's share of charter controversies, however. In some states, Waldorf schools have converted to charter schools with little fanfare. Elsewhere they have been denied funding.
Waldorf schools are already receiving tax support in Milwaukee (under a non-charter program), and they participate in charter programs in Detroit, Flagstaff, Ariz. and Twin Ridges, Calif. (Other California communities are considering them as well.) However, education officials in Anchorage, Alaska, and St. Cloud, Minn., have refused to allow Waldorf schools into charter programs, holding they are too sectarian.
Twenty states now have legislation on the books authorizing charter schools, and about 200 of the institutions exist nationwide. Because laws vary from state to state, there is no way of determining how many Waldorf schools or other religiously affiliated institutions are participating in charter programs.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has expressed an interest in Waldorf education. According to Education Beat, the DOE has allocated $230,000 to fund a three-year project in Sacramento to infuse Waldorf education into a public elementary school. $100,000 of the grant will go to Rudolph Steiner College in Fair Oaks, Calif., to pay for teacher training.
The DOE may be enthusiastic about Waldorf education, but many parents at the local level are not. In Anchorage, parent Kathi Gillespie led the 1994 charge to stop a Waldorf school from entering a citywide program that encourages "alternative education programs." (The approach was not technically a charter program, but the state has since passed a full-blown charter law.)
Gillespie says she became concerned when other parents approached her with information about the odd teachings of Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy. (See "Anthroposophy: Rudolph Steiner's 'Spiritual Science,'" page 7.) "At first I found it hard to believe," she told Church & State, "but then I looked him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica and went, 'Whoa!'"
"[The Waldorf] people are very deceptive," she says. "They came in and were not honest with the school board or the parents on what the school's relationship was to Anthroposophy....When you send your kid to an Episcopal or Catholic school, you know they will do catechism. It's never up front in the Waldorf schools, but they will do Anthroposophy."
Gillespie, who was head of the local PTA when the controversy surfaced, said parents at first opposed the school over curriculum concerns -- many Waldorf schools teach no reading before third grade, don't offer instruction about biological evolution and have been accused of teaching Greek, Roman and Norse mythology as fact -- but when church-state questions came up, the school's fate was sealed.
Supt. Bob Christal issued a memo to the school board advising against permitting the Waldorf school into the program, and the board agreed. In the memo, Christal cited research indicating that Anthroposophy is a religion. "The Anchorage School District," he wrote, "is not interested in establishing any program which espouses a particular religious, spiritual view."
In the wake of the battle, Gillespie campaigned for and won a seat on the Anchorage School Board. "The controversy was certainly a motivator," she said. "I think people on the school boards need to be checking up on this. We need to be informed, especially with these charter laws. This is an open invitation. There are groups out there who do not have the best interests of children at heart and will use this to promote their political or religious beliefs."
But other school districts seem determined to fight for Waldorf schools. In San Diego, for example, education officials recently announced that the review of Tubman Village School will focus exclusively on whether the curriculum meets state guidelines, not Anthroposophy.
Tubman has some strong support on the San Diego School Board. As the controversy raged last summer, member Ann Armstrong told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "I think the school needs to have a second chance. It's not a Waldorf school. It's a Waldorf-type school." Pro-Waldorf parents packed board meetings, pleading for continued funding and making similar arguments.
Tubman officials insist that Anthroposophy is not taught to children at the school. But critics counter that Anthroposophy, while it may not be taught directly, permeates the Waldorf curriculum.
Waldorf writings seem to back this up. In one book, Steiner Education in Theory and Practice, author Gilbert Childs writes, "Waldorf teachers must be anthroposophists first and teachers second....[I]t must never be forgotten -- and one must be emphatic about this -- that the whole of teaching matter and method in Steiner schools is aimed at developing within each child the consciousness that spirit permeates everything in the world."
In Frequently Asked Questions About Waldorf Education? Waldorf supporter David Schlesinger responds to the question, "Are Waldorf schools religious?" by writing, "In the sense of subscribing to the beliefs of a particular religious denomination or sect, no. Waldorf schools, however, tend to be spiritually oriented and are based out of a generally Christian perspective. The historic festivals of Christianity, and of other major religions as well, are observed in the classrooms and in school assemblies. Classes in religious doctrine are not part of the Waldorf curriculum, and children of all religious backgrounds attend Waldorf schools. Spiritual guidance is aimed at awakening the child's natural reverence for the wonder and beauty of life."
(It should be noted that Anthroposophists define "Christianity" with distinctly New Age trappings. Steiner publications speak of the "Cosmic Christ" and the "Christ impulse" and assert that Eastern occultism manifested itself through Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries.)
Another Waldorf writer, Mary C. Richards, asserts in Toward Wholeness: Rudolph Steiner Education in America, "One could say that Waldorf education has a hidden agenda. Its curriculum is described in terms common to public schools in general; arithmetic, writing, reading, geography, botany, handicrafts, history, and so on. But in Steiner schools the dimensions of these subjects are threefold: they are artistic, cognitive, and religious....Religion is not an affair for Sunday alone or for theologians and priests. It is a dimension applicable to all our experience...."
Waldorf educators make a distinction between "religious" and "spiritual," says Dave Alsop, chairman of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America in Fair Oaks, Calif. "[Waldorf schools] are not sectarian; they are not religious either in the sense that religion is being taught to the children as a part of the curriculum," Alsop told Church & State. "They do have a strong spiritual basis. For those who cannot separate the difference between religion and spirituality, I can see where they have a problem."
Anthroposophy, says Alsop, is not a religion. "It's an outlook on life," he says, "it's a framework for understanding life and humanity's role in it. From my perspective, Anthroposophy is an approach to understanding, but it is not a religion in the sense of proscribed behaviors or some kind of ethical edict or anything like that." According to Alsop, a Catholic or a Jew would not have to give up his or her religion to become an Anthroposophist.
Cooper and other critics charge that Waldorf jargon is dense and often dissembling. In the end, Cooper says, she decided that Tubman officials' claims that the school does not teach religion were unconvincing. "We heard a lecture saying that Anthroposophy could not be separated from Waldorf education," she said. "They said it was too intermingled. That's when I started thinking, 'I'm out of here.' Anything that talks about the spirit and soul, to me that is religion. We asked if Anthroposophy was a religion and they said no. But they can say whatever they want. It's what holds up in a court of law that is the proof in the pudding."
Waldorf critic Dan Dugan, an inventor who lives in San Francisco, agrees. Dugan sent his son to a Waldorf school for a year and a half and was once a confirmed Waldorf booster. His views changed when he took a closer look at the school's curriculum.
Dugan notes that Waldorf publications define Anthroposophy as "an association of people who would foster the life of the soul, both in the individual and in human society, on the basis of a true knowledge of the spiritual world."
Says Dugan, "It sounds like religion to me." He is convinced that Waldorf educators deceive the public, saying, "There's a top layer, which says, 'We're non-sectarian.' Then there is a bottom layer, which says, 'We're Christian," which is designed to appeal to the mainstream...And then there is the third level; it's actually occultism, and the Christianity is very strange. It's esoteric, a heretical Christian sect in that respect."
Although Dugan found Anthroposophical teachings troubling from a religious standpoint, he was more offended by what he calls the school's emphasis on pseudo-science. In place of evolution, he notes, Waldorf schools teach a type of creationism that argues that humans were created separately from animals. Teachers at his son's school, he said, also taught ancient myths and legends as fact.
Dugan also charges that of some Steiner's books are rife with "1920s German racist stuff." He was upset that his son's school was selling these titles but ran into stiff resistance when he challenged them. "What I wanted from the teachers was a repudiation," Dugan said. "I was not able to get it. All I was able to get was [the teacher saying], 'Some of Steiner's writings are difficult.' That was as far as they would go."
Some of Steiner's writings do seem to reflect ideas of human development frequently championed by racists. In his book The Universal Human: The Evolution of Individuality (1916), Steiner argues that the races were meant to evolve in sequence, not concurrently. Ancient Greek sculpture, he argues, depicts humans in the perfect state they were meant to reach. But Lucifer and Ahriman (the chief demon in the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism) interfered with the process, allowing "older racial forms" to develop "so that there was a coexistence of races rather than a succession."
Another Steiner tome, Materialism and the Task of Anthroposophy (1921), asserts that the Anglo-Saxon "race" was the only one designed to fully evolve. In yet another book, Health and Illness (1922), he writes, "If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become increasingly dense if men do not arrive at a form of intelligence that is independent of blondness. Blond hair actually bestows intelligence....It is indeed true that the more the fair individuals die out the more will the instinctive wisdom of humans vanish."
Still another Steiner book, The Gospel of St. John
and Its Relation to the Other Gospels (1909), condemns race mixing.
He writes, "[T]he mixing of different bloods obscured the ancient
wisdom more and more....[A]s a consequence of the Luciferic and
Ahrimanic influences, human blood became ever less fitted to provide
the faculty of seeing the outer world in its true light: a steady
increase in illusion was bound up with the blood's
deterioration...and destruction by miscegenation."
Waldorf education official Alsop concedes, "I'm quite sure some of things Rudolph Steiner said were racist. I just don't see that as an indictment of Anthroposophy." He adds, "Steiner didn't want anyone running around saying, 'Rudolph Steiner said, Rudolph Steiner said' and acting as if that were gospel or had to be taken as total reality."
Alsop insists that Waldorf schools do teach evolution, and concerning the claim that the schools teach ancient myths as fact, he remarked, "We have to talk about levels of fact. We perceive that there are archetypal truths in those stories that are relevant and real. Now, whether that means that Zeus actually existed and Leda and the Swan is a true story, that's a hard distinction -- but we definitely approach the mythology and the cultural stories as having reality for those cultures."
The National Center for Science Education, an El Cerrito, Calif.-based organization that promotes the teaching of evolution in public schools, says Waldorf schools don't teach good science. Noted NCSE director Eugenie Scott in a recent critique, "Waldorf teachers are supposed to teach Steinerian evolution. In this view, species were specially created, rather than evolving from one another, and 'spiritual being were the creators.'" Scott goes on to say, "Steiner's teachings on race are also unscientific."
Dugan, who describes himself as normally a skeptical person, was drawn to the Waldorf school because it was such an attractive place. "The teachers were dedicated, there was beautiful art," he says, recalling his visit to a Waldorf open house. "It was the most beautiful school I've seen in the world, and I still think so."
These days Dugan communicates with other Waldorf critics via the Internet and works to get information into the hands of parents fighting publicly funded Waldorf schools through charter laws. He hopes to form a nationwide, non-profit organization called People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools so he can publish and speak on the issue full time.
As the controversy over public funding of Waldorf education plays out, church-state separationists are speaking up. Last August, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent a letter to Ron Ottinger, president of the San Diego Unified School District, advising him that publicly funded schools may not indoctrinate in religion.
Lynn urged Ottinger to cut off Tubman Village School's access to public money. "Failure to do so," observed Lynn, "could make the board vulnerable to a lawsuit on the grounds that it has knowingly violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the relevant portions of the California Constitution."
The AU director notes that in 1979 a federal appeals court struck down Transcendental Meditation practices in a New Jersey public school. The case, Malnak v. Yogi, was brought with assistance from Americans United. During the legal proceedings, TM practitioners made claims similar to the Waldorf educators, arguing that their practices should be permitted in public schools because they were a "science," not religion. The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered TM out of the system.
For now, activists who oppose "public" Waldorf schools and other possible abuses under charter programs are working outside of the legal system, although they concede that litigation may be necessary in the future. Dugan says education is the key to keeping Waldorf schools free of tax support. "It is easy for them to seduce a school board," he told Church & State. "Every school board is an isolated community. School boards buy it because they get an attractive package from professionals. It looks great. Parents will give testimonials; I did when I was a Waldorf parent. Once they [school board members] are committed, what are they going to do? Starting a school is a lot of work and commitment."
Continues Dugan, "We're trying to catch them before they open because afterwards it's a problem....These charters are popping up all over, and we have no idea where they are."
In San Diego, Lilian Cooper, who is now working as a substitute teacher in San Diego public schools, agrees. "What people need to do is go to a public library and check out the main books that the Waldorf teaching colleges produce," she says. "There are five main texts they publish, and if people read those books, I think it will open their eyes as to what is behind these teachings. They need to check into the qualifications of the teachers and look into the teacher training, because it definitely is spiritual training."
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