Court Allows Lawsuit Over Waldorf Teaching Practices To Progress

EducationWeek/October 13, 1999
By Linda Jacobson

A lawsuit that aims to remove controversial Waldorf education practices from two Northern California school districts will go forward after a federal judge refused the districts' efforts to have the case dismissed.

The suit was filed in February 1998 by a group of parents and teachers who argue that the Waldorf educational movement is rooted in a New Age, cultlike religion called anthroposophy and doesn't belong in the public schools.

The group, called People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools--or PLANS--sued the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, arguing that they are violating the First Amendment's ban on a government establishment of religion.

Maria Lopez, a spokeswoman for the 51,500-student Sacramento district, said last week: "We weren't able to get the quick judgment we wanted, but we're going to court, and we think we have a good case."

In his Sept. 24 ruling that sided with the plaintiffs on allowing the case to proceed, U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell wrote that "PLANS has raised a disputed issue of material fact concerning the religious underpinnings of Waldorf education and whether public funding of Waldorf education has the unintended consequence of advancing anthroposophy."

The case is scheduled to go to trial in February.

A Growing Movement

In both districts, the schools using Waldorf instruction are part of a parental-choice plan. In Sacramento, the John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School, a 235-student elementary school formerly called Oak Ridge School, opened in 1995 as part of a voluntary desegregation plan. The Waldorf program has drawn protests from some parents there. ("Public Waldorf School in Calif. Under Attack," June 25, 1997.)

The Yuba River Charter School, with 240 students, opened in the Twin Ridges district in 1994 under another name. It was founded by parents after the closing of a nearby private Waldorf school.

According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, based near Sacramento, about 150 independent Waldorf schools are operating in the United States, and the association often gets calls from those interested in opening new private schools.

"Interest in Waldorf education is just exploding right now," David Alsop, the chairman of the association, said last week.

Mr. Alsop said Waldorf methods were being integrated into public schools in seven or eight districts across the country, primarily through the charter school movement. However, he said, his association is struggling with the question of whether Waldorf education is "compromised by being part of a governmental agency" through public charter schools.

The association wants to help those interested in starting charter schools, Mr. Alsop said, but it is "not going out and trying to start public Waldorf schools."

Dan Dugan, a PLANS board member, said that if his group wins the case, the decision would "give notice" to other districts that are using or considering such a curriculum.

The two districts involved in the case have argued that they are only using Waldorf teaching methods, which include long blocks of instruction and keeping students with the same teacher through the 8th grade. They say they are not teaching the doctrines of anthroposophy, the religion or "spiritual science" advanced by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian-born scholar who founded Waldorf education in Germany in 1919.

"The district certainly doesn't feel that there is any kind of religious instruction going on," Ms. Lopez of the Sacramento district said.

But PLANS contends that it's impossible to separate Waldorf education from anthroposophy. The group is basing its case, in part, on teacher-training materials that include training in anthroposophy.

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