Waldorf public schools face lawsuit

Sacramento public schools include a Waldorf-inspired K-8 school and a high school. Both schools are popular with parents, but not with People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, which has filed a lawsuit charging that the Waldorf system is based on founder Rudolf Steiner’s religious philosophy, anthroposophy, and therefore can’t receive tax dollars.

There are 43 Waldorf-inspired public schools in the U.S., including 24 in California, according to the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education. More are in the works.

John Morse Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School, a district-run school, is moving to a new campus with room for more students. The school integrates “activities of the heart, hands and head” throughout the curriculum, including “handwork, gardening, cooking, and woodworking.”  Teachers stay with the same students throughout their education, if possible. Reading isn’t taught till students are considered ready, which may be as late as third grade. Here’s an Edutopia article on the school.

George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, a charter high school, offers project-based and hands-on learning and stresses drama, art, gardening and poetry. However, all students take the A-G courses that will qualify them for state universities.

PLANS sees Waldorf as “a cult-like religious sect following the occult teachings of Rudolf Steiner.”

Waldorf educators say, simply put, Waldorf is a holistic approach that focuses on a child’s development and has art infused into the curriculum.

Waldorf-trained teachers learn Steiner’s philosophy but don’t teach it in the public schools, says Betty Staley, who trains teachers at Rudolf Steiner College near Sacramento.

Waldorf education is progressive education with delayed reading instruction and a lot of art and nature study. It may work well for some children. Despite some of Steiner’s beliefs about the spirit world, I don’t see Waldorf as new-age religion.

Of course, some see Apple as a religion.

About Joanne


  1. Waldorf philosophy definitely has a spiritual component. I think any public school would need to be “Waldorf-inspired” rather than true Waldorf in order to comply with current legal interpretations of the 1st Amendment.

    The bigger incompatibility with Waldorf education is the requirement to follow the state standards and NCLB.

  2. The official U.S. motto is “In God we Trust”, or “In the Divine/Spiritual we Trust”. There is no separation between God and State, just organized religion and state. Without God there is no State.
    Therefore, mention of God in schools in perfectly acceptable to the American people.
    “According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, 90% of Americans approve of the inscription on U.S. coins.”
    “the Supreme Court has also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” and that government recognition of God does not constitute the establishment of such a state church as the Constitution’s authors intended to prohibit.”


    “One possible origin of In God We Trust is the final stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner. Written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key (and later adopted as the U.S. national anthem), the song contains an early reference to a variation of the phrase: “…And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust’.”

  3. The US motto used to be “E Pluribus Unum”. I think we did better before it was changed to be another expression of empty piety, like the people who sit primly in rows on Sunday morning and then act dastardly the rest of the week.

  4. Waldorf does work extremely well for some children. It would be a shame to lose a public option. But, as always, it isn’t about the children, is it?

  5. CarolineSF says:

    Joanne, that’s rather a sanitized version of Waldorf philosophy. The big issue about Waldorf right now is that Waldorf attracts and/or encourages families who refuse to vaccinate their kids, and Waldorf schools have been hotbeds of pertussis outbreaks. Google and you’ll see.

    Waldorf philosophy is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, a 19th-century loony-tunes or visionary, depending on your view, who had a whole set of beliefs about how humans are descended from intergalactic creatures called Lemurians or something along those lines, and a literal belief in our roots in Atlantis is in there somewhere too. Waldorf taught that gnomes and fairies literally exist.

    And the list of rules in Waldorf schools is pretty amusing — and very rigid. I know someone whose kid was disciplined for refusing to draw fairies when they were ordered to draw fairies. (But not with black crayons, which are banned in early grades.) It’s like military school with Maypoles.

    I have a friend whose two kids, one grade apart, were in Waldorf through 2nd and 3rd grades. Then the tuition was the casualty of a divorce and she moved them to public (in a relatively privileged Marin district). She had to spend thousands on tutoring to catch her kids up with the public school, since they hadn’t been taught to read. She had been totally on board with the delayed-reading philosophy, but that did give her pause.

    If that’s what parents want, fine with me, but NOT in public schools. There are a few Waldorf charters — in passive locales where the citizenry doesn’t raise questions. One was proposed in SFUSD and died after informed questions were raised (it turned out that the people proposing the charter weren’t even informed about Steiner’s philosophies).

    The one area where it’s not fine with me is the immunizations. That has an impact on society that goes beyond their community.

  6. A few years ago I toured the local Waldorf. It was a frightening place. All of the classrooms were dimly lit with Torcheree Lamps. In most classrooms the students were copying art work or written text from a chalk board or in one case, an overhead projector. The lights were not used because the teachers all felt they were harmful. All of the classrooms had posters of Fairies.

    The tour guide referred to founder at least a dozen times. During the question and answer session the majority of her reply’s started with “Rudulf Steiner ” For example, “Rudulf Steiner believed that learning is a magical process.”

    Waldorf does not want any of its students to watch television, or movies, or use a computer. It also does not want students to read books, or newspapers, or any other media. They want them to be surprised when they m discover it at school.

    I came away thinking that it had cult potential.

  7. Cranberry says:

    Is it a religion if someone outside the system says it is? On the Waldorf Answers site, I found this: “No, anthroposophy is not a religion, nor is it meant to be a substitute for religion. While its insights may support, illuminate or complement religious practice, it provides no belief system. The Anthroposophical Society is open to persons of any faith but also those who do not adhere to a particular faith.” The response is much longer. I only copied the first 3 sentences.

    Children attending a public school must be vaccinated. Some states have religious exemptions, or medical exemptions for students who can’t be vaccinated, but students at a Waldorf-inspired public school will be vaccinated. Now, a school with a distinctive philosophy may draw to it families who tend to be less likely to vaccinate, but that refusal to vaccinate would not be inspired by the school.

    Until a very late point in Western history, the only extant schools were run by churches. Many renowned colleges and universities were founded to educate priests, ministers, or preachers. Protestants taught reading and writing so that the faithful could read and understand the Bible. The current public school system itself has deep roots in the religious tradition.

  8. CarolineSF says:

    That’s not accurate, Cranberry. Public schools allow families to opt out of immunization by citing religious or philosophical beliefs. Waldorf charter parents are free to do that, and given the strong anti-immunization sentiment that exists in the Waldorf world, they are highly likely to do make that choice. So Waldorf charters are quite likely to be hotbeds of un-immunized children, risking the same kind of outbreaks that Waldorf private schools have experienced. This is a critical public health issue; it’s irresponsible to put out false information (Cranberry) or “forget” to ask important questions (Joanne).

    Rick, most people who visit Waldorf schools find them appealing and engaging — natural wood, lots of attention to aesthetics. (At Marin Waldorf preschool, at least in my friend’s time, parents were required to provide a cloth placemat and matching cloth apron — natural fibers only, of course — and send the child’s lunch in a basket). I guess it lulls passive types into not asking questions.

  9. Cranberry says:

    CarolineSF, if they’s anti-vaccine types, they don’t need extra persuasion from Waldorf philosophy–whatever that may be once it passes through the sieve of public school restrictions. Even our “normal” public school has parents who are afraid to immunize their children. There’s no need to blame a philosophy for a rise. IF a family doesn’t want to immunize, they’ll find a way. I’d be more inclined to blame the web than any philosophy encountered in school.

    Here’s an article from the Atlantic Monthly about a pertussis outbreak at a Boulder Waldorf school: http://www.waldorfcritics.org/active/articles/AtlanticMonthlyVaccines.html. It comes from a site critical of Waldorf schools. Note, however, that the pertussis in Boulder is due not to the Waldorf philosophy, but to the clustering of people in Boulder who believe in alternative medicine, and are less likely to vaccinate.

    By your logic, CarolineSF, one should close Boulder, as it hosts a population of people who are likely to choose not to vaccinate. I don’t agree with their choice not to vaccinate for infectious diseases, and I’m not a “Waldorf parent,” but I’m not convinced that anthroprosophy is a religion.

  10. CarolineSF says:

    It’s simply reality that Waldorf schools tend to both attract and encourage parents who choose not to vaccinate, so they do tend to be sources of pertussis outbreaks. My logic is that that should make responsible people wary of approving Waldorf public schools. So should the controversy about whether Steiner’s Anthroposophy philosophy is a religion, but a threat to public health is more of a concrete concern to the average person who doesn’t follow education politics.

    See you in Lemuria!

  11. Waldorf does not want any of its students to watch television, or movies, or use a computer.

    This is one of the few areas where I actually agree with Waldorf philosophy. I’d like to see more schools require parents to sign contracts agreeing to restrict their children from media consumption.

    Do I think all TV, movies, computer games, pop music, etc. are harmful? Of course not. But enough of it is toxic that I’d support a total ban to keep kids from being exposed via classmates whose parents are less than conscientious about ensuring age-appropriateness of content.

  12. CarolineSF says:

    My kids found it baffling when their friend, a Waldorf student, was allowed to read the Harry Potter books but not see the movies. At least she had learned to read by then, and was allowed to, since this was middle-school age.

  13. I held off on the Harry Potter movies for quite a bit after my oldest read the books. Especially on the big screen, the visuals make for much scarier scenes than merely reading the words on the page. I’m an adult, and I found the movies’ depiction of the Dementors creepy.

  14. I know at least 6 Waldorf families who have at least 1 parent who works in film or TV and the kids consume as much electronic media as anyone else’s. Maybe more. I think those sorts of bans are silly. We live now, not in the 19th century.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    A part of Waldorf philosophy seems to be that anything invented after 1900 is verboten. Waldorf doesn’t encourage reading to kids at all on the basis that their own imaginations should be their source of entertainment (my interpretation of what my Waldorfy friends have told me), but there are some Waldorf-approved books for little kids. They appear to be written in about 1902 and revolve around elves living under toadstools.

    Stage plays are fine, but not movies, let alone other electronic entertainment. Playing knights and dragons is fine, but not police, fire engines, etc. Transportation vehicles in Waldorf-approved toys seem to be horse-drawn.

    All this is fine if that floats your boat (your vintage non-motorized natural-wood boat, of course). The immunization issue and the question of whether it’s a religion are problematic when it comes to approving Waldorf schools (or “Waldorf-inspired” schools, if you like — a BS euphemism employed as willful deceit if ever there was one) as public charter schools.

    As I say, Waldorf seems to attract people who aren’t the type to ask a lot of questions (if you talk to Waldorf parents, they haven’t researched Rudolf Steiner and have never heard about Atlantis and the Lemurians). And Waldorf charters seem to flourish in passive communities that don’t have a culture of involvement and questioning. Again, here in SF, when a “Waldorf-inspired” charter was proposed and informed questioners started asking about Rudolf Steiner, it became apparent that the would-be charter operators themselves hadn’t even done their homework on him, and the proposal rapidly vanished.

  16. I find myself in the PLANS (People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools) camp. I do not think a “Waldorf-inspired” school, especially if the majority of faculty & staff are Waldorf-trained, can satisfy separation of church and state.

    CarolineSF “It’s like military school with Maypoles.” — that is both funny and accurate.

    @hen I first started investigating Waldorf schools about 19 years ago (when my daughter was 3) I was charmed. This was of course before the internet, really. We’d even paid a deposit for a pre-school enrollment.

    Then over the summer I talked with a friend from highschool, with an older child who had withdrawn from a Waldorf school at the end of the first-grade equivalent. My high-school friend is a mildly-observant Jew and just became more and more uncomfortable with the religious/spiritual part of the curriculum. Her son (who is now a successful college graduate) had some attentional and behavior issues, and she also became uneasy with how the teacher and the school leadership was then responding to her son’s behavior struggles. Essentially they were blaming the boy for everything, rather than thinking about how to rejig things to make it easier for him to succeed.

    I especially dislike the “temperaments” and the Steinerian idea that learning differences should not be identified or remediated as they are part of a child’s “karma” to work out.

    In general, Waldorf/Steiner schools are anti-science. Check out “floating islands” (Steiner taught that all islands float, unconnectedly, in the ocean) or Steinerian astronomy (Steiner taught that Earth does not orbit the Sun) or the role of the heart in blood circulation (““[T]he heart is indeed a sense organ for perceiving the blood’s movement, not a pump as physicists claim; the coursing of our blood is brought about by our spirituality and vitality.””)

    I’m not opposed to Waldorf schools as private entities. I just don’t want this kind of spiritual bilge publicly funded.

  17. Cranberry says:

    None of the opponents of the “Waldorf-inspired” public schools have been able to define what such a school would look like. Stories of friends’ experiences and the practices of certain private Waldorf schools are anecdotal.

    As a public school, it would be required to meet the state’s testing framework, which would be incompatible with explicitly teaching whatever Steiner is supposed to have believed. The spirituality component would also be incompatible with a public school. It could well end up being a school with a strong arts component, which does not rush to teach reading in kindergarten. By the way, the Finns don’t begin formal reading education until the age of 7, which would be, 2nd grade.

    Apparently, a number of Catholic schools have become public charters. No one doubts that the original schools are religious schools. Critics of the Christian faith have written many treatises and books attacking every point of Christian belief and practice.

    If it is possible for parochial schools to become charter schools, it would be possible for Waldorf schools to become charter schools. What is left may not resemble private Waldorf schools at all.

  18. ThetisMercurio says:

    I have had children in (Steiner) Waldorf schools in the UK. We did not understand until after we left the central role anthroposophy plays in these schools, wherever they are (and the US sites reveal the same ideas, no one should kid themselves into thinking otherwise) but when we did, many things that hadn’t made sense at the time fell into place. It’s possible to ignore some of the more disturbing aspects of Waldorf education in pursuit of the image you’ve seen initially, a nirvana for your child.

    I entirely agree with Liz Ditz assessments of these schools as anti-scientific.

    The most important fact for anybody to remember is that anthroposophists lie. They lie to education authorities, politicians, parents. Steiner told them to lie: they were advised to ‘worm’ their way in.. The image of anthroposophy that needs to be kept in mind is that of one of Steiner’s central ideas: reincarnation through the races from Black to Aryan. Of course it’s a special kind of ‘spiritual’ racism, superior to the common kind, they only mean the best for those who will eventually incarnate white, if they play their cards right and hey, If that’s your thing, by all means campaign for public funding and face the consequences. And if you think I’m joking, I’m not: I’m deadly serious. I’m angry too: so should you be.

    Anyone who proposes a ‘Waldorf inspired’ charter school is best advised to take very seriously anthroposophy’s history and the growing, vocal criticism from Europe, New Zealand and Australia as well as within the US, which isn’t going to go away and which will seriously damage the image of any school which proclaims itself so inspired. Have a school based on the arts, develop children’s hands, heads and (with respect for their dignity and without undue interference) their hearts but for your own sakes don’t base it on the witterings of a dead theosophist, occult ‘knowledge’ and ‘spiritual science’. How hard can it be?


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